City attorneys throughout Utah are well-acquainted with costly legal claims ranging from personal injury cases to allegations of police brutality.
But in the past five years, 36 cities have joined a municipal liability pool that tries to settle legitimate grievances but won't hesitate to "beat sense" into legions of young lawyers on the prowl for deep pockets.The Utah Risk Management Mutual Association was formed five years ago when commercial insurance wasn't merely expensive, but unavailable.
Executive Director Bryce McEuen said in general, the number of claims, such as those for personal injury, has remained steady.
However, he's seen an increase in the number of "pro se," or lawyer-less lawsuits, such as those by inmates who sue their arresting officers and what he called "mental patients" who are institutionalized and "sue everybody in sight" upon release.
"We have pending now seven or eight cases, all pro se. They'll sue everybody for the weirdest kinds of things," he said. "It's kind of pathetic, but you have to defend against them."
Other suits on the increase involve people who claim they've been wrongfully fired; zoning and land use cases and, in the case of automobile accidents, allegations of improper road and intersection design.
As for demands, McEuen said they've "always been inflated."
"I used to be a plaintiff's lawyer, and the joke was that plaintiff's attorneys' typewriters always get stuck on zero," he said.
In reality, he said, the demand is irrelevant and the standing rules are to make a reasonable settlement in legitimate cases, shun the courtroom unless the case can be won and "beat sense" into young lawyers eager to make a name and a profit on questionable claims. Many cases are settled in the $5,000-$10,000 range. McEuen said one of the largest recent settlements was $250,000 in the case of a West Valley City police officer who drove into the path of motorcyclist, leaving the rider with brain damage.
The association assesses its members 1 percent of their operating budget, less any major capital expenditures the city has made.
"There are enormous differences in the cities' budgets, so we have developed some pretty complicated formulas . . . that reward those without problems, and make those who do pay more," he said.
But McEuen said Utah juries tend to be quite reasonable about awards.
"Utah's a very conservative place. We have a built-in advantage there," he said. "Basically, we are finding now that juries appreciate the fact that there is no money tree . . . it comes from their pockets. They've got a pretty good handle on the way things work."
In general, McEuen said, it's the young, inexperienced lawyers who accept clients anxious to sue City Hall.
"Most plaintiffs' attorneys have found out there's not a lot of money to be made. The good ones can make a fortune," he said, "but unless you're one of those select few . . ."
"We generally deal with attorneys who are just trying to make a name for themselves," he said. "And it just takes forever to beat sense into these people."
Indeed, he said, "The biggest problem is the increase in the number of lawyers. There are just way too many lawyers being pumped out of law school. Anytime you've got lawyers out there without anything to do, they tend to take on marginal cases."
Salt Lake City is self-insured, while Provo maintains a self-insurance account and commercial insurance for claims over $500,000.
Assistant Salt Lake City Attorney Greg Hawkins said Utah's capital in 1977 turned to self-insurance, funded by tax dollars, to escape skyrocketing premiums.
For example, he said, the minimum commercial premium early in 1989 would have been $1.5 million, with a $500,000 deductible.
And while claims totalling $3.5 million are pending against the city, Hawkins estimated the city will end up paying less than 10 percent of that amount.
Most of the city's 200 to 250 claims involve auto accidents and trips and falls, with demands ranging from $5 to $1 million "depending on their imagination and their greed," Hawkins said.
Hawkins agrees with McEuen's assessment that inexperienced attorneys who take on marginal complaints soon discover that taking risks can waste time, hard work and money.
"When you're young and trying to build up, you can take cases you can regret taking. It costs 'em bucks," Hawkins said. "They've learned that if they're going to take on the city, they'd better be able to prove their case."