WA lawmakers probe government immunity in lawsuits

By Chris Thomas | Apr 04, 2013

Legislation in Olympia would make it optional for state or local governments to pay up when they are sued for negligence in high-dollar cases. The bill says if a jury awards more than $1 million to an individual or $2 million to a group, the government entity can put off paying indefinitely, and the judgment will not accrue interest in the meantime.

Its supporters say it would save money for cities and the state. But Larry Shannon, government affairs director with the Washington State Association for Justice, says it is not fair to the people who have suffered personal injury or property damage.

"In my view, it's an abuse of power. It is an attempt to take any sense of government accountability away from the people and just leave it contained in the hands of politicians," he said. "They get to be their own judge."

Shannon said the bill (SB 5803) has not had a public hearing yet, but warned that this late in the session, an attempt might be made to add it to the newly-released Senate budget.

Negligence cases often include life-changing situations, such as Mickey Gendler's cycling accident in Seattle. He suffered a spinal-cord injury he's working hard to recover from. Gendler said his medical bills alone will top $2 million. He said the option of government not paying claims gives it a reason not to prioritize fixing dangerous conditions.

"In addition to the obvious injustice to people who are seriously injured, it's bad public policy because it's going to promote less-responsible action and less-careful action," Gendler said.

The bill's supporters have said the state Constitution allows the legislature to decide on government immunity in lawsuits, and that state and local governments could save money on insurance costs as well as by not having to pay expensive judgments and legal fees.


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