BY JIM DOOLEY – A federal judge today called the state Legislature’s failure to fund $2.67 million in legal settlements “a terrible thing” and urged state officials to resolve the matter.
“It’s never happened before,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren said in a court hearing.
“It really is a terrible thing” that “limits the state’s ability to negotiate” resolutions of legal disputes, Kurren said.
Lawmakers have routinely passed legal settlement bills in previous legislative sessions but this year’s measure, HB1001, was hung up in last minute maneuvering between the Senate and House of Representatives and was not approved before the 2011 legislative session ended last week.
It appropriated $2.67 million to resolve 17 pending cases in state and federal court and was recommended for passage by state Attorney General David Louie.
Attorney Eric Seitz, who represents plaintiffs in three of the cases, said the state could be liable for “millions of dollars” in damages and legal fees if the cases go to trial and the plaintiffs prevail.
But Deputy Attorney General Donna Kalama said the state might have to go to trial because of the Legislature’s inaction.
“It wasn’t our fault it happened. It’s really out of our control,” Kalama told Kurren.
Seitz said he’s contacted Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office about calling the Legislature back into a special session to resolve the matter “but no one has gotten back to me.”
Speaker of the House of Representatives Calvin Say said last week a special session may be convened late this month or next month to deal with unresolved issues, including the settlement bill.
Seitz said one of his clients, Wade Itagaki, is supposed to receive an $83,000 settlement from the state but is penniless now and living in a state homeless shelter.
A jury awarded Itagaki $83,000 in damages after state prison officials kept him in prison 83 days beyond his legal release date.
Itagaki is severely ill from diabetes and “I’m afraid he may not live to see his money,” Seitz said.
Another Seitz case involves numerous past and present inmates incarcerated in the Hawaii Community Correctional Center who were injured during a 2004 fire at the facility.
The fire was started as a protest over severe overcrowding conditions at the prison.
The state has agreed to pay $275,000 to settle the case.
The numerous plaintiffs “are only going to get between $1,000 to $5,000 each,” Seitz said.
“It’s not a lot but it’s a significant amount of money for them,” Seitz said.
Another of the pending settlements calls for payment of $250,000 into a trust established for a mentally retarded girl who was raped by a McKinley High School special education class assistant.
“My client and her guardian are very unsophisticated people,” said Dennis Potts, attorney for the victim.
“The money would help her to live and it’s very critical to her,” Potts continued.
The victim is “an immigrant from Micronesia. She is moderately mentally retarded and was in the special ed class at McKinley High School when this terrible thing happened to her,” he said. “My hope is that the Legislature will reconvene and pass this bill.”
Other cases involve severe injuries incurred in traffic collisions with state vehicles.
One even calls for a $25,000 payment to a Waiawa Correctional Facility inmate, Andrew Kuresa, who was bitten on the hand by a wild boar while standing in the prison yard.
“It was a totally unprovoked attack,” Kuresa’s lawyer, Daphne Barbee told the Honolulu Advertiser when the suit was filed in 2009.
“He had no food in his hand. Now he can’t make a fist with his right hand and he has a scar. He was just standing there and it just came up and bit him,” said Barbee.
The boar frequented the prison area and was known to guards and inmates as “Butch,” Barbee said.
Seitz said today he is willing to wait before seeking legal enforcement of the judgments.
“You probably should sit down and talk about before loading up,” Kurren told Seitz.
Attorney General Louie’s legislative testimony on the bill, and brief descriptions of each case, can be found here: HB1001 testimony