A year of costly settlements for Snohomish County

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s legal payouts have shot up this year, with big settlements over a jail death, car crashes and disputes over public records.

To date, county government has paid nearly $3.9 million. That’s about triple what they spent on settlements last year and more than nine times the amount in 2012.

County attorneys contend that nothing has changed in the legal landscape. Each settlement, they argue, involved a calculated move to avoid a costlier fight in court.

“Obviously, with any litigation, there are risks involved,” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor. “The county sat down, without admitting liability, and resolved the lawsuits.”

It’s mainly chance, Cummings said, that so many cases originating at various times over a decade, ended in 2014.

In Snohomish County, some settled cases have highlighted systemic problems, including deaths at the county jail.

The county’s largest payment this year, $1 million, went to the estate of Lyndsey Lason, a young woman who died slowly of a lung infection in 2011 while in the county jail. Most of the money will go to assist Lason’s 11-year-old son.

Part of Lason’s settlement included seeking reforms at the jail, such as reducing the inmate population, better medical screening at booking, and bolstering the jail’s medical staff.

With more than a dozen inmate deaths at the county lockup since 2010, more legal battles can be expected to follow.

Scheduled for trial next year is the case of Michael Saffioti, who died in custody in 2012. The 22-year-old suffered from severe allergies and went into anaphylactic shock before his death. His mother, Rose Saffioti, filed suit in February accusing jail staff of ignoring her son’s medical needs.

In September, Rose Saffioti received a $95,000 public records settlement from the county over jail security-camera footage that jail staff initially failed to turn over.

The county’s legal insurance kicks in after $2 million, but none of the individual settlements this year exceeded that amount. The money comes from a fund maintained for tort settlements.

Trial lawyers say the payouts play an important role: they help people who have suffered and force public agencies to make reforms.

“Government should be responsible for the harms they cause their citizens, just like anybody else would be,” Everett attorney Todd Nichols said.

Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, however, believes Washington’s tort laws are stacked unfairly against state and local governments, and taxpayers.

The State of Washington paid out between $48 million and $76 in each of the past five years. McKenna said the combined payouts for local governments ran about double the state government’s total while he was in office, from 2005 through 2012. That, he said, is several times more than what’s paid out in states of similar size.

“Other attorneys general can’t believe we have as much exposure as we do in Washington state,” said McKenna, who is now in private practice. “We are an outlier. No doubt about that.”

McKenna tried unsuccessfully to change the law, but has no hope that will happen anytime soon. In particular, he targeted the principal of “joint and several liability,” under which governments can be made to pay all of the damages even if only partly at fault. That’s a strong incentive to settle, rather than risk trial.

“It’s very difficult for governments, for taxpayers more specifically, to avoid paying out something,” McKenna said. “You only have to be 1 percent at fault to pay 100 percent of the damages if the other defendants have empty pockets. That is the problem.”

Trial lawyers scoff at McKenna’s argument.

“No one has ever been able to point to a case in history where somebody is 1 percent responsible, ever,” Nichols said.

Current Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office has no plans to seek changes in the liability standard next year, spokeswoman Alison Dempsey-Hall said. Instead, Ferguson’s office has been working with state agencies to reduce their liability and protect the public. Legal teams debrief with agency officials after every trial to look at room for improvement.

Snohomish County has paid more than $1 million this year to resolve suits over car accidents where “joint and several” liability came into play.

The county agreed to pay $850,000 to the family of Shaylynn Wietersen, a 16-year-old Granite Falls girl killed in a 2009 crash involving a tree about 5 feet off the side of a county-maintained road. She had been a front-seat passenger in a car her brother was driving when they were hit by another car and knocked into the tree. The other car had been attempting to pass them in a no-passing zone as a third vehicle pulled out of a driveway in front of them.

A separate quarter-million- dollar settlement went to a man who suffered head injuries in a 2003 crash while a passenger in a stolen car being chased by deputies through south Everett. The driver of the stolen car died. Another passenger in the car reached a $150,000 settlement over her injuries last year. The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that deputies failed to use reasonable care during the pursuit.

The county doesn’t settle every time — far from it.

The county received 117 claims for damages this year, spanning lost property to wrongful deaths. The amount requested ranged from less than $50 up into the millions.

The county has been sued for damages in Superior Court about 15 times this year.

“We have many cases that are resolved on summary judgment, but we don’t issue a press release when they’re thrown out by the court,” said Cummings, the county attorney.

In 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed in connection with a 2009 police shooting that left a Verlot man dead outside his home after a heated dispute over knotweed. The county and its noxious weed inspector had been accused of violating the civil rights of Daniel Waslichen, who had pointed a gun at county workers and deputies.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Legal settlements of $50,000 or more this year involving Snohomish County government:

$1 million to the family of Lyndsey Lason, 27-year-old woman who died at the Snohomish County Jail in 2011.

$850,000 to the estate of Shaylynn Wietersen, who died in a 2009 car crash on Burn Road near Granite Falls.

$600,000 to the family of Adam Colliers, a 25-year-old Gold Bar man who died of a heart attack in 2010 after deputies shocked him with a Taser.

$575,000 to resolve a public records lawsuit from Citizens for Sustainable Development, a group seeking information about agricultural policies in the Snohomish River floodplain.

$305,000 to resolve an employment-discrimination lawsuit from Natalie Rose Bryant, a county employee laid off from the Office of Public Defense in 2010.

$250,000 to resolve a suit from Mario LaPlant, who was severely injured in 2003 while a passenger in a stolen car that crashed in south Everett while being chased by police.

$125,000 to resolve a workplace-discrimination suit from Deborah Hollis, a Medical Examiner’s Office investigator.

$95,000 to resolve a lawsuit over the jail staff’s failure to disclose security-camera footage relating to the death of 22-year-old inmate Michael Saffioti in 2012.

$70,000 to resolve a lawsuit from a county employee who was injured after slipping at a public works facility during a snowstorm in 2008.

Snohomish County, legal payouts by year:

2014 – $3.9 million

2013 – $1.2 million

2012 – $415,000

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