Report: Agencies in North Carolina pay millions in insurance, tax funds to suppress lawsuits

0
52
In June 2005, a 63-year-old woman was thrown out of a tram at the North Carolina zoo in Asheboro. The vehicle tipped over on her, severely injuring her shoulder and requiring years of treatment. The state paid out $ 85,000 more than a decade later.

North Carolina officials agreed in 2015 to pay $ 100,000 to a family from Cumberland County, whose father's body had been left in a hospital mortuary for two days to decay without cooling.

In the same year in Wilmington, the city spent $ 9,000 settling a claim after the police pulled a woman half naked out of her bed and had her handcuffs while serving a warrant at the wrong address.

In these cases and hundreds of others, North American officials have donated millions through insured and taxpayers' money to undermine the risk of legal action – whether it is an employee who claims to be discriminating or a driver who is driven by a school bus hit.

Despite the sometimes large price tags, these settlements can be huge cost-saving measures for agencies that hold back long-standing lawsuits or expensive assessments. But the payouts rise quickly.

Due to the lack of uniformity in the way in which agreements are kept and shared with the public, a joint study released by nine editorial offices throughout the state on 11 March may make it difficult to calculate the total costs. The project was timed to coincide with Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government and the right of the public to know.

Settlements between private individuals – a company and a former employee, for example – can be mysterious by nature and the public is not necessarily entitled to details. But when a government agency is involved, those agreements must be legally disclosed to the public, with rare exceptions.

Reporters asked for five-year settlement agreements in January from 61 agencies – from provincial school boards to the governor's office – in North Carolina. Thousands of pages with documents revealed huge differences in the types and volume of cases that lawyers have handled since 2014, some of which have gone through the legal process for decades or longer.

Whether the resolution is $ 60 or $ 600,000, lawyers from both sides say the intention is to close a deal before legal maneuvering becomes too expensive for both parties.

The trial can be more art than science, according to Attorney General Josh Stein, whose lawyers litigate on behalf of government institutions.

"It's poker," Stein said. "You got a hand with cards. Someone with the same hand of cards can eventually win the pot; someone else with the same hand of cards can fold and walk away."

The price of running government services means that people make mistakes, break rules and suffer from accidents. That can cost taxpayers millions.

For example, the State Transportation Department paid $ 15.3 million in compensation claims for employees over the five-year period 2014 to 2018, the records show. That does not include medical costs and administrative costs to manage the claims.

Sometimes settlements came after workers – such as an information specialist at the North Carolina zoo – fought relocation to an easy-to-fire job instead of protecting public service.

Employees are not the only recipients of government spending.

In March 2011, 76-year-old retired Army Sgt. Major Larry Kono died in his home in Fayetteville. His body was sent to the mortuary at the Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for a physical examination by a nurse practitioner contracted by the Chief Medical Examiner's office.

After the exam, Kono's body was kept uncooled for days in a body bag. The funeral home advised against the family looking at the body.

In a memo justifying the $ 100,000 settlement to the family on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, Special Deputy Attorney General Gerald K. Robbins was unambiguous.

"The liability exposure that comes to court would be possibly hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of dollars if this case reached the jury," Robbins wrote in 2015.

Stein said that this is the calculation that the lawyers of his office must at least make.

"Sometimes the state was wrong. No one – certainly no corporation, no entity – will be right in all cases," Stein said. "So if the state is wrong, we have to make a payment. If we don't settle these things, and we go to court, they run the risk of the referee or a jury getting really mad at you. & # 39;

The media coalition revision of the settlement agreements also revealed that some contain secrecy provisions that could violate state law.

Antoine Graham and Jerry Melvin sued officers from various southeastern North Carolina law enforcement agencies after Graham was shot while the men reportedly tried to drive away from a DWI checkpoint in Brunswick County in 2013. The formal settlement said the plaintiffs received the $ 155,000 they received , would forfeit explain they talked to reporters about the incident or the shared video of the incident.

"If the claimants are asked by someone about the terms of this settlement and release, he will limit his response to the following:" The case has been resolved, "" Graham & # 39; s settlement agreement is partial.

Several agencies had to provide one page of records before the deadline for this story.

Almost a month after the original request was made, Department of Public Instruction spokesman Drew Eliott said reporters should have directed the investigation to the Attorney General's office, which is negotiating the claims. Every other state agency uses lawyers at the Attorney General's office in a similar way, but no other agency sends reporters there to get records.

Different agencies, on the other hand, responded quickly and completely. By the end of February, the Agriculture Department provided more than 600 documents, some of which show:

  • Dollar General stores were fined every year from 2014 to 2018 for overloading customers with price scan errors. The Standards department of the department checks retail price equipment for accuracy.
  • In 2017, the department attempted to charge the Waterkeeper Alliance environmental organization just over $ 2,000 to complete a large request for public records. The Alliance was called to challenge the compensation. To settle the dispute, the agency paid nearly $ 700 to the group and made a $ 2000 donation to the Sunshine Center of the Open Government Coalition at Elon University.

___

This story has been reported by Emery P. Dalesio, of the Associated Press; Frank Taylor, from Carolina Public Press; Ames Alexander and Ann Doss Helms, from The Charlotte Observer; Steve DeVane, John Henderson, Rachael Riley and Paul Woolverton, from The Fayetteville Observer; Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, Lynn Bonner, Will Doran, Keung Hui, Anna Johnson and Andy Specht, from The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun; Ann McAdams and Brandon Wissbaum, from WECT; Tyler Dukes, from WRAL News; and Jason deBruyn, from WUNC.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.