Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Legal claims
against state grow

Lawmakers prepare to pay
$16.6 million to settle lawsuits
over a wide array of issues

The Legislature is preparing to pay $16.6 million in legal claims against the state, more than three times the $5.2 million in settlements last year.

State of Hawaii The costs disturb Gov. Linda Lingle, who has directed Cabinet officials to start looking more seriously at risk management.

"It is a horrible feeling, when we are working so hard to fund critical programs, we are also paying out large sums of money for actions that often times are stupid, unnecessary or avoidable," Lingle said during a news conference at the state Capitol yesterday.

The claims come from lawsuits filed against the state ranging from civil rights or discrimination cases to injures on or because of state property.

"The money isn't going to any beneficial program. It is going to pay off a lawsuit that was unnecessary in many of these cases," Lingle said.

The largest settlement this year is $7 million for a class-action settlement coming from the state's low-income health insurance program, QUEST, which had excluded blind and disabled persons from coverage. Blind and disabled persons were expected to get coverage from Medicaid programs, but that program did not treat everyone who would have been able for QUEST benefits.

The second-largest claim was for $2 million to settle court cases from 1997 when three women employed by the state prison system charged that they were discriminated against. Two years ago a Circuit Court jury awarded $4.1 million to the women in a gender discrimination suit filed against former and current supervisors at the Department of Public Safety.

The women were Faith Evans, Hawaii's first female U.S. marshal before she joined Public Safety; Sydney Zalopany, supervisor of Internal Affairs; Wendy Elkins, a narcotics enforcement investigator; and Dr. Kim Thorburn, who had been hired in 1987 to bring the state's prisons in compliance with a federal consent decree. They charged they were denied training or overtime pay that similarly situated males received, and were subjected to retaliation when they reported improper conduct.

Attorney General Mark Bennett said he would not discuss the case because the settlement for $2 million was contingent upon it being settled this year and he was awaiting legislative action.

In another case, the state is settling a claim for $150,000 to pay an "inspirational deaf speaker" who came to Hawaii in 1999 to give a speech.

She was accompanied by her hearing assistance service dog. The woman was first told by animal quarantine personnel that the dog could not leave the airport quarantine area. But after the woman became upset, the state veterinarian said she could take the dog to her hotel. Then the former state attorney general told the director of the Agriculture Department to revoke the agreement, but the letter was not sent to the woman until she left the state.

The Agriculture Department then issued a misdemeanor citation to the woman, who later sued the state for "civil rights and Americans with Disabilities Act (violations) and violations of the Federal Rehabilitation Act."

State of Hawaii

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