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Originally published Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 2:57 PM

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State AG McKenna right to push for liability reform

Attorney General Rob McKenna singles out for reform, rightly in our opinion, Washington's enormous exposure to liability.

ATTORNEY General Rob McKenna rightly singles out for reform Washington's enormous exposure to liability.

Consider this: In 2009, the state paid out more than $50 million in legal judgments and settlements. According to McKenna, that is between four times and 12 times as much as comparably sized states, including Massachusetts, Arizona, Tennessee and Indiana. The tally for this biennium may approach $125 million.

Our budget-strapped state could use that money for other things.

The state should not be shielded from liability. When its negligence harms the public, the state ought to be held accountable. But safeguarding the state from being targeted simply because it is the party with the deepest financial pockets makes smart fiscal sense.

McKenna offers thoughtful options legislators ought to take seriously in the upcoming session. They include: capping state damages, limiting acts for which the state is liable and apportioning the state's share of payouts to its share of the blame.

The last proposal removes the state from being the target in cases where it has the least liability but the deepest financial pockets. Trial lawyers will not like these ideas. Democratic lawmakers are sure to be lobbied against them. McKenna is a two-term Republican appealing to a Democratic-controlled state Legislature for reform.

There are signs fiscal prudence transcends political lines.

Rep. Deb Eddy of Kirkland believes common ground can be found among reformers and trial lawyers. The Democrat's call for clearer definitions of the state's liability, particularly in areas of child safety and corrections, is a smart first step.

Another useful idea comes from Rep. Reuven Carlyle on eliminating the recovery of attorneys fees in employment litigation. The Seattle Democrat's proposal would rid the state of a perverse incentive to draw out legal proceedings.

Useful ideas, but none should eclipse the need for Gov. Chris Gregoire and McKenna to work harder at reforms and improvements, particularly at agencies most vulnerable to liability claims — for example, the departments of Social and Health Services, Corrections and Transportation.

Every state has enacted some measure of tort reform. Time for Washington to do the same.

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