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Stung last fall by two negligence verdicts totaling $37.4 million for failing to supervise paroled felons, Washington state has agreed to pay $8.8 million to settle claims by plaintiffs in two similar cases arising from a released rapist’s murderous rampage. The pretrial settlement, which the state Department of Corrections praised in a written statement as “fiscally prudent,” represents the latest hit on the Washington state treasury, tapped heavily and repeatedly by claims that state employees failed to monitor paroled violent felons. “They settled because the state desperately wanted to avoid another $22 million verdict,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Paul W. Whelan, co-counsel with Kevin Coluccio, both of Seattle’s Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Withey Coluccio. “Who knows what it would have been if the case had been tried,” he said. Schultz, Underdahl v. State of Washington Department of Corrections, nos. 99-2-20537-5-KNT, 99-2-20542-1-KNT (Super. Ct., King Co.). A VIOLENT JOURNEY Three years after his 1994 parole, convicted rapist Gary Wayne Puckett sexually assaulted and murdered Alice Underdahl on a jogging trail in Kent, Wash., then drove to North Dakota where, at a rest stop, he slashed Julienne Schultz’s throat. When police stopped. Puckett at a road block — because the victim had identified his car — he shot himself in the head. The state agreed to pay $4.4 million each to Schultz, who survived, and to the Underdahl family. Corrections officers supervising Puckett missed 21 of 27 contacts with him, and when they did follow up, they overlooked numerous warning signs about his future crime wave, said Whelan, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. The Department of Corrections disagreed with the negligence claim, calling its employees’ conduct “reasonable.” Because of “the possibility that the nature of these crimes might produce a very high jury verdict, the state determined that settlement of $4.4 million each was fiscally prudent,” the agency said. Since 1994, Washington has paid $20.6 million for 25 parolee-liability settlements and one jury award, said attorney general spokesman Gary Larson. A jury hit the state in 1997 with a $6.3 million negligence verdict for the family of a cheerleader murdered by a parolee. The largest previous settlement, according to state insurance records, is a $1.8 million payment in 1998 to a woman paralyzed when a former boyfriend under correctional supervision stalked and shot her. Last year’s verdicts of $15 million and $22.4 million — which are not included in the $20.6 million settlement figure — are on appeal, said Larson. Washington is paying such a high price because, unlike many states, it does not have statutory sovereign immunity. As in a handful of states, case law makes Washington liable when the state fails to supervise paroled felons. In 1992, the Washington Supreme Court held that if a parolee has the potential to be dangerous, the parole officer has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm. In that case, Taggart v. State, the plaintiff had been stabbed and beaten by a parolee, a violent sexual offender. Under the decision, parole officers are not required to guarantee public protection from a parolee’s crimes, just to look for warning signs and act on them, said the plaintiffs’ attorney in both jury award cases, John R. Connelly Jr., of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Daheim in Tacoma, Wash. In one of the cases, a jury awarded $22.4 million to the family of a woman killed by a parolee who crashed a stolen car into her vehicle, and $15 million to the family of a woman who had been raped and murdered by a parolee. “Right now, the Washington state Department of Corrections is not doing its job,” charged Connelly, who has three or four other parolee cases against the agency. Although the financial stakes may be higher now, the issue is not a new one, said plaintiffs’ lawyer Mark Leemon, who represented the plaintiffs in Taggart and about two dozen other cases against the Department of Corrections. The state has paid settlements to parolee-crime victims as early as 1983, noted Leemon, a shareholder at Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender, a Seattle plaintiffs’ firm. Taggart happened to be the first one to be fully litigated, he said. Since the decision, the state has seen a steady and substantial increase in cases involving corrections, said Kathleen D. Mix, chief deputy attorney general. The Attorney General’s Office has 22 current suits involving parolee liability and seven claims filed with the state in which no complaint was filed, according to Larson. “I would expect there to be a continuation of difficult cases,” said Mix, who adds that the Attorney General’s Office is working with the Department of Corrections to “develop some strategies to address their liability problems.” The growing caseload has spurred hiring, she said. Last year, six lawyers were added to the 40-lawyer tort division, and another five or six are coming on board this year, she said. “You’ve got to have experienced staff handling high-exposure cases,” she said. Indeed, a lawyer defending the state’s social service agency missed the deadline for filing an appeal of a $17.8 million jury verdict in a case in which disabled plaintiffs alleged sexual and physical abuse at a state facility. Washington is self-insured for claims of up to $5 million. An insurance policy pays claims exceeding that amount, but in the case of the missed deadline, the insurer denied the claim and has sued Washington for breach of contract. The undertow of litigation won’t lighten the mood at insurance contract renewal negotiations this spring. Betty Reed, a Washington risk management administrator, said that she expects “serious discussions” about the soaring claims.

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