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Originally published December 28, 2010 at 1:58 PM | Page modified December 28, 2010 at 3:34 PM

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Wash. attorney general hopes to cut lawsuit costs

As Washington's budget woes compound, Attorney General Rob McKenna is making suggestions for how the state might reduce what it spends in legal judgments and settlements.

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. —

As Washington's budget woes compound, Attorney General Rob McKenna is making suggestions for how the state might reduce what it spends in legal judgments and settlements.

Washington paid more than $50 million in such costs in 2009. McKenna says that's between four times and 12 times as much as comparably sized states, including Massachusetts, Arizona, Tennessee and Indiana.

The issue has long bothered McKenna, a two-term Republican. He says legislators in the upcoming session could cap state damages, limit acts for which the state is liable or to tie the state's share of payouts to the state's share of blame.

"Our liability ought to be in line with other states. Even if we adopted a system like Massachusetts has or Oregon has, we'd be better off," McKenna told The Olympian's editorial board Monday. Those two states have some limits on liability payouts.

His efforts are sure to meet resistance, especially from trial lawyers who are important Democratic donors.

Larry Shannon, with the state's trial attorney lobby, told Seattle NPR station KUOW for a story last week that he disagrees that Washington is too exposed to liability. The state's taxpayers should be proud of its willingness to take responsibility when its mistakes hurt innocent people, he said.

"These are real people going about their lives and have them destroyed and shattered by incidents that could have fully been prevented," Shannon said.

And, he argued, savings from cutting such payouts are illusory, because without them, victims of such cases are likely to wind up needing public assistance.

McKenna said he agrees that the state should pay for damages when it is negligent and harms the public. But he also said the state unfairly pays out too much in cases where it's partly to blame and simply is the party with deep financial pockets.

The attorney general has offered several ideas to Democratic Reps. Ruth Kagi of Lake Forest Park and Deb Eddy, a Kirkland lawyer. Among them are limits on damage payments and apportioning costs of a judgment according to a party's share of blame. Another is to change the law so defendants in personal injury cases involving car wrecks can introduce evidence that a plaintiff did not wear seat belts.

Eddy said she believes reformers and trial lawyers can find common ground.

One idea she's exploring is to better define where the state really is liable for child-safety and Department of Corrections errors, in effect defining a "standard of care" that could help clarify duties for state workers.

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Another is a sort of no-fault fund that could be used to help those who are damaged in child-protection cases.

The state recently settled one case for $8 million, involving a cyclist who was left paralyzed when his tire became stuck in the deck of Seattle's Montlake Bridge.

In another, the state had to share in a $30 million payout in a case where a motorist was left paralyzed when another vehicle rear-ended his in a construction zone along Interstate 5 in Seattle. A traffic-flow meter had stopped the first vehicle, and both the contractor and second motorist were sued.

The insurer wanted to go to trial, and the state ended up paying a share of damages. McKenna said the theory was that the state shared blame because a nearby overpass cast a shadow over the accident area.

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Information from: KUOW-FM, http://www.kuow.org/ and The Olympian, http://www.theolympian.com

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