This website is an information resource for those interested in obtaining all of the facts that pertain to how the current Washington State civil justice system holds the government accountable for serious injuries or deaths that arise due to negligence or intentional wrongdoing.
[T]he most promising way to correct [governmental] abuses, if the community has the political will to correct them, is to provide incentives to the highest political officials by imposing liability on the governmental unit.~ Justice Utter*
We Need Incentives to Public Officials to Correct Governmental Wrongdoing
State Attorney General, Rob McKenna, and his supporters are advocating for bringing back the antiquated, 30+ year old law that would shield the government from lawsuits. This is often called “sovereign immunity”. If this were to happen, anyone who would be seriously injured or killed because of the negligence or intentional wrongdoing of a government worker would not recover for their medical bills, etc. Without the ability to hold the state accountable for its negligence, countless citizens injured would face financial catastrophe.
Under Washington’s system, the government is never responsible for anyone’s actions but their own, and is never judged on any failures or bad choices expect for their own. These failures by the government must also be the “proximate cause” of the injury or death inflicted on the citizen – that “but for” the government’s actions or inactions, the harm never would have occurred. Without meeting this standard, there is no liability and no fault assessed against the government. It is simply not true – and perhaps deliberately deceptive – to say that government can be liable even when they did nothing wrong.
Lawsuits Against the Government Force Positive Changes To Processes & Systems
Lawsuits against the government have forced positive changes to governmental processes and systems over the years, which have prevented future catastrophes from occurring. These changes include
- limits and additional security on work release programs,
- methods of assessing and monitoring dangerous felons,
- background checks on licensed group and foster home providers (to try and prevent sex offenders/predators from caring for the most vulnerable),
- changes to specific road conditions and designs that have caused serious accidents,
- better medical communication procedures,
- safer driving programs and procedures for law enforcement and public employees,
- and, many other necessary public protections.
Lawsuits often serve as a catalyst of positive change, and also as a canary in the coal mine, telling us about dangerous programs or conditions.
Focus on Risk Management and Loss Prevention
The experience of Washington State shows that aggressive prioritization of risk management and loss prevention programs is the best deterrent to incidents causing injuries and harm, and subsequent liability for causing that harm. These programs are the best of both worlds–they prevent injuries from occurring, while also saving the state money. In 2003 and 2004, when these programs began and were emphasized, payouts dropped an astonishing 75% in one biennium, and stayed in that range for over five years. Only when the emphasis faded did payouts start to rise. We need to get back on track, to try to prevent injuries and suffering, and thus the payouts that often go with them. This is an approach we can all support for a safer Washington.
Focusing on Payouts to Injured Victims Shifts the Blame Away from the Government’s Mistakes
One of the purported reasons for shielding the government from these lawsuits is the rising state deficit. Supposedly, the large payouts to seriously injured or wrongfully killed claimants are driving up the state deficits. However, the deficits are now over a billion dollars. Several million dollars is a but a small fraction of a $1.2+ billion deficit.
Focusing on the millions of dollars paid out to injured victims turns the problem on its head. The correct focus is to understand how to correct the problems and errors rooted in the government, rather than blaming the problem.
The root of the problem behind these large payouts was that juries or the state attorneys determined that some governmental unit should be held accountable, which is why the state settled or juries awarded large sums for damages. If more care were taken to avoid serious injuries or deaths, these types of awards would not exist. Juries are comprised of concerned taxpayers, who represent all of us. Do not insult their intelligence and wisdom, when criticizing the amount they find as just for the injured or killed victim.
We must keep this state’s focus on the public’s welfare and safety, especially in the face of rising budget deficits. To try to avoid accountability will not make the problems go away. In fact, reducing the government’s liability will make the problem worse for all of us. Instead, we must tackle the source of the problems, rather than blaming the results of the state’s wrongs.
Many innocent lives have forever changed because the state neglected to address a treacherous roadway or intersection. The potential victim could be any number of people who travel the roads of Washington or have the briefest encounter with a governmental agency (e.g., DSHS, a public health department, etc.).
The motive for doing away with governmental immunity in the early 1960’s in Washington State was to encourage responsible conduct in the public sector. As Justice Utter pointed out, as is the case in the private sector, the immediate costs of litigation and payment of damages are outweighed by the significant value of encouraging responsible conduct.
First, to keep the government liable is to hold the responsible party accountable for wrong acts and their consequences. Second, the damages that victims recover allow the injured citizens to pay for required medical treatment and assistance. Imagine if the City of Seattle was not held accountable for the death of Kristopher Kime that resulted from the mishandling of the Mardi Gras riots in 2001.
The takeaway: Washington citizens will suffer greatly, if the government is shielded from lawsuits.
* King v. Seattle, 84 Wash. 2d 239, 244, 525 P.2d 228, 232 (1974)