Justice and Due Process

Improving Government Accountability

Whether you drive on the roads, walk on the sidewalk, take a public bus, or attend a public school, you will likely have some aspect of government in your life almost every day—it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Because of the wide involvement and influence they wield over the public, the door is wide open for potential problems that could result in harm to people or their property.

This is why it’s pertinent that government employees and entities be held accountable under the law. But under Utah’s current immunity laws, it’s difficult to make this happen. Representative McKell sponsored House Bill 311 to help fix this problem by reforming government immunity laws to heighten accountability a bit more.  

This bill has multiple facets of reform, fixing a number of existing issues with the law—but not all of them. One such reform improved the “notice of claim” process. When an individual has a legitimate claim against the government, they must file a “notice of claim” with the government agency or individual they intend to sue. This is an extremely technical process prone to errors by the plaintiff. The Winegar family learned this the hard way.

The Winegars filed a lawsuit against Springville City after the city tore up their family property without notice or permission. They cut down over 100 trees, dug up the streambed running through their property, and removed vegetation that kept the stream from eroding. After the city refused to pay for the damages, the Winegars filed a lawsuit against them. Four years into the lawsuit, the judge dismissed the case on the basis of a technical error made by the Winegars in filing the notice of claim. This was devastating news.

The Winegars had a legitimate case but lost on a technicality. And they aren’t the only people to whom this happens. Representative McKell’s bill fixes part of this law by making the notice of claim requirements more reasonable for a person to comply with.

The law also expands the time period where one can sue from one year after the notice of claim, to two years after the claim arises. This gives an individual more time to fully prepare for their case while bringing the time period closer in line with rules for private personal injury claims.

For the next change in the bill, consider the following scenario. If a public bus crashes, the injured passengers should have the ability to be compensated for their medical bills. If the government refuses to pay, they might decide to bring forth a lawsuit to recover damages. But even if the passengers win the lawsuit, they are only allowed to be compensated up to two million dollars—to split between all of them. This amount may seem like a lot, but still might not be enough to cover everyone’s costs, which is wrong. Representative McKell recognized this and in his bill, he raised the payout cap to three million dollars which is a good (albeit incremental) improvement. In an ideal world, no caps would exist; none exist for the private market.

The new immunity law also includes reforms for those seeking damages beyond the lawful cap. The cap is a specified dollar amount that the state can’t go over when paying plaintiffs in a case brought against them. If a person’s damages are so severe that they require extra money to be made whole again, they now have a legal process to be awarded money. The new law sets up a better petition process for this to happen.

The new law provides great incremental steps towards a more just system of accountability. It makes a complicated system more reasonable, though it certainly requires more work in the future. But thankfully, this year’s bill is worth celebrating.