Gregoire loses bid for extra time in case of missed appeal

By HUNTER T. GEORGE

Associated Press

OLYMPIA— The Washington Supreme Court today rejected Attorney General Christine Gregoire’s request for a second chance to appeal a $17.8 million damage award — one of the largest ever issued against the state by a jury.

The one-sentence order signed by Chief Justice Richard Guy marked the end of the most embarrassing case of Gregoire’s career.

The case involved claims that the state Department of Social and Health Services negligently licensed a Bremerton group home where three developmentally disabled men were physically and sexually abused. Because of mistakes made in Gregoire’s office, the state missed a deadline for filing its appeal and was ordered to pay the damages.

Judy Beckman, mother of one of the men, said she hopes no other developmentally disabled person ever suffers the way her son did.

"The money wasn’t the issue. The issue was they need to change the way they take care of handicapped people," she said in a telephone interview from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the family moved.

"I think I’m still in shock. I’m happy for my son. Now he’ll get the proper care he needs," she added. "The state will never take care of him again, that’s for sure."

Gregoire, who is seeking a third term in the Nov. 7 elections, issued a statement saying her office will move "swiftly" to pay the families. The verdict accrues interest at a rate of $5,800 per day and now tops $18.8 million.

"While I believe it was necessary to raise important legal issues with the Supreme Court, I was also mindful of the desire of the three plaintiffs and their families to put this case behind them," Gregoire said.

"The failure to file a timely appeal in the Beckman case was a terrible mistake. But we are continuing to move forward with efforts to prevent a repetition of that mistake."

A Pierce County jury awarded the families of Damon Beckman, William Coalter and Eric Busch $17.8 million in April. Gregoire’s office immediately said an appeal was expected, but none was filed.

Her office learned of its error 10 days after the deadline when it received a letter from the men’s attorney, David P. Moody of Seattle, asking when the money would be paid. The attorney general’s office immediately filed a motion asking for a 10-day extension.

Gregoire blamed several factors.

She said Moody or the Pierce County Superior Court should have advised her office that the jury’s verdict had been officially entered into the court record, which starts the 30-day period to appeal.

An investigation by an outside consultant also found there was bickering between the two assistant attorneys general handling the case, Janet Capps and Lori Lamb. The consultant, former federal prosecutor Susan Barnes, concluded that Capps inexplicably ignored legal documents sent to her office by Moody. Capps was forced to resign, and Gregoire has said that Lamb was reprimanded.

Lamb, nevertheless, was recently promoted to assistant vice president of Washington State University for personnel and business administration.

Capps is preparing a lawsuit against the state, claiming she was wrongly discharged and unfairly accused of intentionally ignoring the paperwork.

In August, the state Court of Appeals rejected Gregoire’s request for a second chance, saying she failed to demonstrate the kind of "extraordinary circumstances" that merit rule-bending. The court also rejected her excuses and said the problem stemmed from inadequate caseload management within the attorney general’s office.

In September, she asked the state Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court’s decision. She was turned down Wednesday.

The high court’s decision marked the end of a four-year legal battle for the three families, but Gregoire’s work isn’t over.

The state’s insurance policy covers claims in excess of $5 million, but the state’s insurers are threatening to withhold their share on the grounds that Gregoire failed to adequately defend the state by appealing the verdict on time.

Gregoire said she took the case as far as she could by asking the Supreme Court for an extension of the deadline.

"By exhausting the appeal options available to us, we have every expectation the insurance carrier in this case will provide full coverage," she said.

Gregoire added that she has hired two consultants to help revamp office systems "to better handle the rapidly growing caseload of increasingly complex cases."

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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