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August 15, 2013 at 6:00 AM
Civil Disagreement: Should Seattle and taxpayers pay for drunk driver?
Civil Disagreement is an occasional feature of the Seattle Times editorial board. Here Bruce Ramsey and Lynne K. Varner disagree on who should be held responsible in the Schulte case, in which two family members were killed and two others seriously injured by a drunk driver.
Bruce and Lynne also debated the topic in a Google+ Hangout. Here is the video replay, and their arguments for and against the lawsuit below.
Family was right to sue
This past spring the Schulte family was crossing a Northeast Seattle street when a drunk driver plowed into them, killing Dennis and Judy Schulte and seriously injuring their daughter-in-law and 10-day-old grandson. As this Times story reports the Schultes have filed a group of claims totaling $45 million against the City of Seattle alleging it should have done more to keep the driver, Mark W. Mullan, off the road.
The family’s claims are neither frivolous nor a shakedown of a deep pocket. They are seeking damages but also, and perhaps more importantly, changes in the way the city monitors people under court supervision.
The question of liability hinges, as it often does in these cases, on whether government did enough to prevent the accident. No government entity can keep its constituents safe 100 percent of the time, but how hard government tries is a key factor.
Here are the facts: At the time of the crash, Mullan was under the supervision of Seattle Municipal Court because of a previous drunken-driving arrest. He had been arrested twice in the months leading up to the crash in Seattle and Snohomish County for driving under the influence. He defied a court order to install an interlock device on his pickup truck.
What was the point of supervising Mullan if the conditions of his supervision were not going to be enforced? When Mullan did not install the interlock device on his truck, that disobedience should have triggered consequences, possibly including jail time.
Of course Mullan is more at fault than anyone. He got drunk and drove his vehicle into a group of people. But bad behavior is sometimes enabled by the inaction of others. The city became responsible for Mullan’s behavior when he was placed under court supervision in Seattle. There may be legal standing to go after his insurance company; insurers should think twice about covering people with multiple drunk driving arrests. The search for accountability may include Washington state, which licenses drivers and outlines here the consequences for those arrested, and separately, those convicted of a DUI.
Why was Mullan allowed to keep his vehicle? Would knowing he could face a jail term for driving without an interlock device have stopped him on that fateful day? Who knows. What we do know is that a credible argument can be made that more should have been done to stop him.
A family has suffered grievous and permanent harm through no fault of their own. Medical bills, from hospitalizations to long-term care, will mount for years to come, possibly adding up to more than the amount of the claims. As I write this, the daughter-in-law is in a nursing home relearning how to talk, swallow and walk.
This family is in for years of physical, emotional and financial anguish. They should not be forced to bear it alone. I doubt any jury would ask them to.
Lawsuit the wrong way to respond
Lawsuits like this trouble me.
I have an idea what it’s like to be in a terrible accident. Decades ago I was in an accident in which my mother was almost killed, and I was in the hospital for a week. I can’t argue with the sorrow or the anger, or the statement that no amount of money can restore the family the way it was. But I don’t agree with suing the city for $45 million.
The lawyer’s argument is that the driver was under a court order to get an ignition interlock installed on his vehicle, and that it was the city’s responsibility to make sure he did it, and the city didn’t. Therefore the accident is the city’s fault.
My argument is that it’s the driver’s fault that he disobeyed a court order and didn’t have an interlock and it’s his fault he was drunk. He was driving. The accident is his fault.
We all have our biases here. I think of responsibility as flowing from choices, and choices as made by individuals. When people say something is “the city’s fault,” I think: Which person in the municipal government is at fault? Did some person make a wrong decision? If so, who? And if you can’t put your finger on anyone in particular, and want to blame “the city” as a whole, maybe the blame you want to assign is a diluted kind and not the real thing.
And who would pay? It matters who pays. If there is liability insurance, an insurance company would pay, and it would try to pass it on to future policyholders, all of whom are innocent. If there is no insurance, it comes out of the city’s general fund and I have to pay because I’m a taxpayer here, and I’m innocent. Making “the city” pay is a way of spreading out the actual payment to people who are innocent, but that collectively have deep pockets. The aim is to maximize the amount of money, including the one-third to the attorney.
Then I hear, “It’s not about the money. It’s about getting the city’s attention.” Well, if it’s “not about the money,” don’t ask for money. If it’s about getting attention, about shame, ask for the appropriate city official to parade for three days around Westlake Square in his underwear with a sign that reads: “I failed to protect the public.” Is that terrible? (Worse than having to pay $45 million?) Buy a full-page ad in the The Seattle Times showing the miscreant’s face and saying, “I’m sorry for failing to protect the public.” That will get people’s attention, and it won’t cost $45 million.
Lynne, there was another case like this at the Washington Supreme court a few days ago. In Lowman v. Wilbur, a woman hit a utility pole with her car after driving home from a drinking place with a blood-alcohol count of 0.14 and driving 13 m.p.h. over the speed limit. Her passenger, who was severely injured, sued (among others) Puget Sound Energy because the pole was only 4.5 feet from the road, and it was supposed to be 10 feet from the road. Except for Justice Jim Johnson, the court ruled that Puget Sound Energy was liable. I agreed with Johnson.
“It certainly cannot be a wise policy of this state to make Washington taxpayers insurers on behalf of criminal motorists,” Johnson wrote.