Deep Pockets

"LAFD ambulance". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LAFD_ambulance.jpg#mediaviewer/File:LAFD_ambulance.jpgHawaii residents were shocked this morning when the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported at the Attorney General is seeking approval from the Legislature for $1.4-million to pay for two claims against the state. [1, 2, 3] While this is not unusual, it draws attention to a policy shift both in the Legislature and on the 5th floor (Governor’s office):

  1. Former Attorney General David Louie, directed by Neil Abercrombie, was instructed to settle cases wherever possible against the State of Hawaii rather than rigorously defending the State in court against frivolous and unwarranted cases, and
  2. Plaintiff’s attorneys (“ambulance casers”) have taken up powerful positions in the Legislature. These include the House Judiciary Chair, House Finance Chair and House Majority Leader. This is further compounded by the rise of Gil Keith-Agaran to Senate Judiciary (and Labor) Chair.

The plaintiff’s attorney lobby [4] is significant to the everyday person because they profit from every claim that the state pays out to aggrieved individuals. They are more commonly referred to as “ambulance chasers” because they seek out individuals who have been injured as an opportunity to make more money. With $6-billion in revenue, the State of Hawaii is an incredibly deep pocket to tap if you are looking to make a few dollars. Ambulance chasers have a vested interest in being able to win money from the state because these very same claims are their six-figure paychecks.

Below is a brief summary of funds authorized by the Legislature to pay claims against the state:

Year Bill Number # $
2014 SB2246, 2014 31 $2.98 million
2013 HB775, 2013 37 $28.31 million
2012 HB2476, 2012 17 $7.88 million
2011 Not available Not available
2010 SB2661, 2010 38 $9.11 million
2009 HB1016, 2009 35 $7.74 million

It is in the taxpayer’s interest to minimize the number of claims against the state. While the state should be accountable for the actions of itself and its employees, these are taxpayer dollars that are better invested in preventing these actions from happening in the first place. Better management and better oversight would ensure that individuals are neither injured nor aggrieved by the state. Instead, ambulance chasers are looking for additional ways to fatten their wallets under the guise of “adjusting for inflation”.

The most alarming reality is that these very same plaintiff’s attorneys are seeking to increase the cap in claims against the state. With fellow ambulance chasers in positions of power, both the House and Senate are poised to advance HB189 and SB137 in separate hearings on Friday (January 30th). [5] These bills are not in the best interest of the state. These bills are not in the best interest of the taxpayer. It is a bill advanced by ambulance chasers, for ambulance chasers.

What is saddening, however, is that none of the investigative reporters at KHON, KITV and KGMB (and even the liberal tabloid CivilBeat) have looked into how sitting legislators and the law firms that they both work for and represent, have materially benefitted from claims against the state. If they do not look into this, perhaps it is time that the independent State Auditor or the Ethics Commission looked into the matter before a federal prosecutor does.

You can learn more about these bills using the links below. The bill status can be used to submit testimony in opposition (or support) of the bills. While additional comments are helpful, they are not necessary to voice your opinion – a simple “yes” or “no” is the bare minimum for testimony. To submit testimony electronically, you must register at the Hawaii State Legislature’s website. If you choose, you may use any (or all) of this post as part of your comments submitted with your testimony. While most committees accept late testimony, testimony should be submitted 24-hours ahead of the committee’s meeting time.

Committee Date & Time Location Links
Senate Judiciary & Labor Jan 30, 8:30 AM Rm. 016 Bill StatusHearing Notice
House Judiciary Jan 30, 2:00 PM Rm. 325 Bill StatusHearing Notice

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[1] – Claims against the state are the result of lawsuits where the State of Hawaii was found liable for an action and/or injury against another entity (private citizen, non-governmental organization, business, etc.). In addition to passing a budget bill every legislative session, claims against the state are a routine part of legislative business.

[2] – Honolulu Star-Advertiser, January 28, 2015, “Attorney General seeks $1.4 million to settle 2 suits against state” http://www.staradvertiser.com/newspremium/20150128__Attorney_general_seeks_14M_to_settle_2_suits_against_state.html?id=290036641

[3] – While these claims against the state are inexcusable and should not have happened in the first place, this in no way diminishes the deplorable and misfortunate circumstances that initiated these claims.

[4] – The Hawaii Association for Justice (HAJ) represents the interests of money-grabbing plaintiffs. Sitting legislators such as Sylvia Luke are members of HAJ. The singular interest of the HAJ against nearly a hundred pieces of testimony advanced a bill that made the state liable for injuries hikers and rock climbers suffer on state lands.

[5] — Both bills have similar language to raise the cap on claims that require legislative approval. The current cap is $10,000, so most claims (whether agreed upon, arbitrated or judicially mandate do) are envisioned to go to $9999 to maximize benefits without drawing undue scrutiny.  It is unclear why the legislature would forfeit its powers of oversight other than to appease the plaintiff’s attorney lobby. Perhaps to line their own pockets.

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