Collaboration in Civic Spheres

KIng County audit hastens fix pledges on accident pay-outs

by July 9th, 2013

King County could do far better controlling public risk and related liability pay-outs in negligence cases, especially those related to Metro Transit and other transportation functions, according to a recent and wholly overlooked report from the King County Auditor’s Office. It accents “critical weaknesses” in current risk control strategies. These include baked-in lowballing of the real risk bill to county taxpayers due to ignoring workers compensation costs in taxpayer-funded tort liability settlements; and lack of an overall risk control system including thorough accident data tracking and related performance standards. Another shortcoming is insufficient driver safety training, the audit finds.

Outside of transportation, the audit says the county “will continue to face compliance and claims risks” because of its sub-par system for responding to public records requests, and that it must speed efforts to implement risk controls around incidences of excessive force by the King County Sheriff’s office, and cyber-secuirty vulnerabilities. Top officials say they’re implementing some changes already, and more are to come.

According to the June 26 Performance Audit of the Office of Risk Management issued by Interim King County Auditor Bob Thomas, overall negligence payouts by the county have totaled $179.4 from 2003 through 2011, and $132.6 million or almost three-quarters of that was footed by county taxpayers with the rest covered by the county’s large payment self-insurance plan, for settlements of $7.5 million or more.

As part of our 501c3 Public Data Ferret’s continuing focus on Washington state public sector management challenges and recommended solutions identified in non-partisan reports – in 2012 and 2013 we dug up sub-rosa King County Office of Risk Management reports dating back several years and then published analyses (here, here, and here) showing that a disproportionate share of pay-outs in recent years were due to transit-related accidents.

KOMO-TV 4 News in Seattle featured our work in February of this year, including a firm pledge from Metro to get its house in order risk-wise.

The 42-page county performance audit concludes that there are “critical weaknesses” in ORM efforts to “identify and address risks” compared with industry-wide risk accounting standards, and that vehicle accident claims for Metro transit operators and other county drivers were a particular sore point. County risk management officials lack “solid performance measures” to control risk and loss related to transportation negligence and ORM’s risk calculus lowballs “county liabilities by not including workers’ compensation costs,” according to the county audit.

The report notes that of the nearly $180 million in total negligence claims paid out from county fiscal years 2002 through 2012, somewhat more than one-third were larger claims of $1 million or more and of those the largest chunk were for vehicle mishaps, followed by the categories of excessive force (County sheriff’s police) then drowning, negligent maintenance, and retaliation. Vehicle accidents accounted for more than half of paid negligence claims or $70 million, with 90 percent – or almost $63.3 million of that subtotal – tied to the high-dollar amount transit mishaps.

Our stories – linked above – show that over recent years county tort claims settled for $100,000 or more have typically included a high proportion of transit-related incidents.

The audit urges that King County gradually adopt a more up-to-date and holistic “enterprise risk management” or “ERM” approach to limiting negligence lawsuit- and settlement-related payouts stemming from county transit, transportation and other operations. The audit prescribes that this should include: better tracking of liability and and vehicle accident trends including annual accidents per total miles driven; plus boosting bus drivers safety retraining, adding worker’s compensation coasts into risk assessment totals; and closing more of open negligence cases sooner.

The audit notes additional areas for improved ERM. Only 12.5 percent of Metro bus drivers other than those in a preventable accident get needed annual eight-hour refresher safety training courses. Nearly 7 of 10 who took defensive driving courses in 2009 did not do so again within the mandated three-year refresher span.

In a résponse included in the audit, King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county would take steps including adding worker’s comp and vehicle damage tabs to calculate “true accident costs” into annual reports starting next April; and that the county would improve transit and other driver safety training within available resources. Constantine also noted that King County Metro has already newly hired its own Risk Manager to develop approaches that would curtail the number and severity of costly accidents that have befallen the agency in recent years. The county also says in the audit it intends to complete a top-to-bottom review resulting in an ERM or enterprise risk management “framework” delivered by the end of next year.

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

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