Washington State’s Attorney General Rob McKenna recently campaigned for tort reform, claiming that the legislature needed to step in and reduce the awards that were being entered against the state. He indicated that the courts were out of control and the legislaure needed to do something about it:
“But the courts have moved so far away from what the Legislature intended back in the early 1960s that the law removing sovereign immunity is no longer recognizable, and at the same time the Legislature has failed to act at a policy level where the limits ought to be.”
Mr. McKenna got into office advocating tort reform for everyone, saying that judgments were getting too big.
That sounds to me like just expedient court bashing. He says lawsuits are preventing the state from taking corrective action? That sounds like baloney.
Well, what did he do when the Exxon Valdez case got to the Supreme Court and the Court was asked to review the biggest punitive damages award in American history, $5 billion? This award was being attacked on two grounds. First, Exxon said that it was excessive. The plaintiffs were awarded all their proven damages, plus $5 billion. Second the spill was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act which does not award punitive damages at all. This omission from the law was fought for by Republicans, who generally are beyond cautious with respect to environmental laws. The $5 billion punitive damages award was granted under court created doctrine that the trial judge held applied in spite of the Clean Water Act.
The arguments of Exxon are exactly the same positions that Mr. McKenna campaigned on and which he has been advocating recently.
Mr. McKenna participated in this case by helping prepare a brief on behalf of Washington and 33 other states which argued that the punitive damages award should not be reduced and that the court created doctrine that allows punitive damages ought to be respected in spite of contrary language in the Clean Water Act. This is exactly the opposite of what he is saying in public.
Lawyers are sometimes required to advance positions they do not believe in but this does not appear to be the case in this instance. Mr. McKenna is crowing about the result and how he helped preserve punitive damages under court created doctrine!
The statement he issued on June 25 says this:
“We are pleased the court upheld an award of punitive damages, since Exxon had argued that no punitive damages can be awarded in a maritime case under federal law, no matter how egregious the circumstances,” McKenna said. “We are disappointed, however, that the Court did not award the full punitive damages authorized by the Court of Appeals. The reduced award is brutally disappointing for the Washington and Alaska fishermen and their families who were counting on this money to help make them whole.”
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t disagree with this sentiment. It is just that because I agree with him, I cannot in good conscience claim to support tort reform, particularly the two points championed by Exxon and Mr. McKenna in public statements.
I have puzzled over this for some time trying to render Mr. McKenna’s divergent positions rational. The only thing I can come up with is that Mr. McKenna thinks that punitive damages are fine for injured people in other states but not for people in Washington, except for fishermen. That still does not make sense to me.