Lawsuits stack up against county
Officials sock away much-needed cash in case of losses
By Michael Andersen
Columbian staff writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010
A stack of major legal claims against Clark County’s government has been piling up, and the county has been rapidly socking away cash in case it loses.
Though officials say they don’t think the public is at fault in any of the cases, their decision to boost liability reserves sevenfold has driven up insurance bills and forced the cash-strapped government to tie up precious dollars, increasing the pressure to lay off cops, close parks and hike taxes.
“It’s kind of our year in the bucket,” county risk manager Mark Wilsdon said last week. “We typically do a pretty good job of keeping our claims down.”
Wilsdon’s job is to review every claim filed against the county everything from a door kicked in by sheriff’s deputies to the damage that county building regulations might do to local fish and, for each, guess how likely the county would be to lose in court.
The county typically gets two or three claims a week, Wilsdon said. That figure hasn’t changed.
But the claims the county faces this year are much bigger lately, so big that Wilsdon moved his estimate of the county’s liability exposure from an average of $600,000 over the last six years to about $4.5 million in 2010.
Wilsdon’s report to commissioners last week came as the county had issued layoff notices to five deputies and the county was entering another summer of sharply reduced road maintenance and park cutbacks.
Among the claims:
• $21 million from Chantell Fogle, an 18-year-old who was partially paralyzed last year after the car she was riding in was hit by a van and then collided with a utility pole at Southeast 252nd Avenue and 20th Street. The van had failed to yield, but police said a blood test found that Fogle’s driver had been using marijuana. Fogle’s lawyer claims the pole, which was part of collisions in 2004 and 2006, is in an unsafe spot.
• $4.9 million from Gary Smith, a 20-year-old construction worker who reached up to lift a power line while standing on top of a house being moved along Southeast First Avenue in 2005. Smith was seriously burned and claims the county shouldn’t have allowed the house to be moved along that route.
• $2 million from two former employees in Clark County’s jail and one former job applicant. The three men, who are black, accused the sheriff’s office of racial discrimination during a series of incidents starting in 1991.
• $1.75 million from the estate of Phuong Tran, an unconvicted jail inmate who died of an apparent Prozac overdose last year, two months after a consultant warned of dangerous understaffing and mismanagement of the jail’s internal clinic.
In many cases, the county is among several parties named. But because its annual budget is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the county could be left holding the bag if other parties named can’t come up with their money.
This is the case if the county is found to be only 1 percent at fault, Wilsdon said.
The county also just started buying pollution liability insurance. In February, several environmental groups claimed commissioners’ plan to run stormwater into regional drainage pits instead of handling it on-site violates the federal Clean Water Act.
Wilsdon called his $4.5 million figure the amount that the county is saving to cover its deductible, should it lose a case or settle out of court an “educated guesstimate.”
But he said he thinks the risk of a loss is low.
“If we totally believed that we owed it, we’d probably just pay it,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Stuart said Wednesday that taxpayers shouldn’t worry that so many big claims have come in at once.
“I don’t believe this is a long-term trend,” Stuart said. “It’s a short-term effect of the bad economy and increased lawsuits looking for deep pockets.”
Michael Andersen: 360-735-4508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.