Just taxpayer money

Carson City is all about cutting and scrimping these days. The economic downturn has forced hundreds of millions of dollars in spending reductions and an extensive search for ways to save the public money.

On Tuesday, the state’s latest effort to limit taxpayer liabilities entailed enriching a Nevada Highway Patrol captain with a check for $480,000 to settle a lawsuit.

Jacquelyn Sandage, the first female captain in Nevada Highway Patrol history, suffered various indignities upon her promotion.

Far from being subjected to mere teasing by peers, she endured highly inappropriate comments from two of her superiors, Col. David Hosmer, the agency’s chief, and Maj. Robert Wideman, chief of the Northern Nevada command. Col. Hosmer once told Capt. Sandage, “I know why I don’t like that new jacket: I can’t see your ass,” according to her lawsuit.

The Department of Public Safety conducted an investigation that led to Col. Hosmer’s resignation and the demotion of Maj. Wideman.

Capt. Sandage filed her lawsuit after the conclusion of the state inquiry and after her tormentors had been forced out of their positions. Although her claims of harassment and a hostile work environment had merit, the state clearly responded to her complaints, and her work environment changed as a result.

But Capt. Sandage had nothing to lose and much to gain by seeking a huge payout for her troubles. Because the taxpayers of Nevada provide a bottomless well of revenue, no judgment would be large enough to put her employer out of business and put herself and her colleagues on the unemployment line. And for those very same reasons, the state has no incentive to fight lawsuits.

So on Tuesday, the unanimous vote by the Board of Examiners to pay Capt. Sandage nearly half a million dollars was cast as a cost-savings measure. Had the state not waved the white flag, it might have had to pay much more at trial, said Reno attorney Mark Mausert, who represented Capt. Sandage.

But how can the state and local governments justify these bloated settlements as fiscally responsible decisions when they never fight any of the lawsuits brought against them? Where is the one case officials can point to and say, “See what happens when you don’t settle? See how much we could have saved the public by settling?”

In fact, Nevada governments frequently have no idea what they’re doing when they hand out public money like candy. The largest settlement in state history, a $2.4 million payout in 2001, was issued to parties involved in a deadly car accident that followed a police chase involving the Nevada Highway Patrol. The pursuit began in Nevada, but the crash happened in Arizona. The city of Mesquite also coughed up $2.4 million. After the checks were cashed, Nevada officials learned that under Arizona law, they were obligated to pay no more than $352,000.

Mohave County, Ariz., refused to settle that lawsuit, and a jury returned a verdict of only $880,000. And the crash survivors said they believed Mohave County deputies were more responsible for the carnage than any Nevada agency.

A case involving death and serious injury produced a jury award of $880,000. Capt. Sandage, on the other hand, collected $480,000 for harassment and humiliation?

That such huge sums are routinely handed out with no consistency and no sense of proportionality illustrates how badly broken our entire tort system really is. Absent sensible reform, at some point the state must defend taxpayers before a jury to send the message that the public’s pocketbooks are no longer an easy mark.

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