A closer look at half a billion dollars in indemnity payouts.
In the previous post I listed the last three years of indemnity payouts–settlements the state made in lawsuits–that totaled $145 million. Today I received data going back to 2000 and it’s an extraordinary exercise to look at the numbers in a broader light.
Here’s the more comprehensive picture.
Since 2000, the taxpayers of the State of Washington has paid out $459,306,667 to settle lawsuits and related grievances. In 2000 we paid out $22,471,213; 2001 we paid $85,421,946 (the biggest number by far–a very bad year); 2002 we paid 33,768,329; 2003 we paid $40,806,445; 2004 we paid $23,961,986; 2005 we paid $29,967,954; 2006 we paid $26,371,017; 2007 we paid $39,613,830; 2008 we paid 48,143,257; 2009 we paid $57,263,894; and in 2010–as of July 6–it appears we’ve paid $51,516,796 so we are clearly on track to continue to keep the unfortunate trend going.
So to save you the math: From 2000 to today, taxpayers have paid out–$459 million–too close to half a billion dollars. Three major agencies account for a majority of the payouts–Department of Corrections, Department of Transportation, Department of Social & Health Services but many others have been included for various categories of disputes.
If you take out the highest and lowest years the average payout is $38 million a year although that number is clearly on the march higher. So while the economy grows, struggles, constricts and changes, the constant of substantial indemnity payouts continues.
It would be beyond inappropriate, of course, to judge the merits of the actual cases. I am not suggesting by any stretch that those who are wronged by the state or employee error shouldn’t receive appropriate compensation. My goal is not to imply that trial lawyers, Attorney General Rob McKenna, Governor Gregoire, legislators, inept bureaucrats or other named and unnamed players are exclusively at fault.
This is a shared, systemic problem and it is one of the burdens of governing and running a complex organization.
My larger public policy objective here is only to push a bit on the idea that we as a major enterprise must accept a level of risk in this range. While I don’t have comparative data about other states, regardless of their numbers, we as a state should tackle the the larger structural questions of our risk mitigation strategies, programs and policies.
Are we ruthlessly attacking repeat problems at their root? Are we educating our state employees by investing in specific risk mitigation initiatives? Are we providing measurements for our managers and agency directors that include this metric? Have we included this in our list of system reform challenges?
And on a deeper level, have we become so litigious that this level of annual payout is inevitable almost regardless of our risk mitigation strategies? Or, I wonder, have we become so accustomed to such massive payouts that in a $34 billion biennial budget including $100 million or so for lawsuits has just become accepted?
Your partner in service,