Don't let companies get away with deaths
Opinion by guest columnist Frank King

Bellingham Herald
12 March 2003

PUBLIC SAFETY: Wrongdoers must bear cost, accountability for their actions, not victims.

Three people lost their lives in 1999 because the Olympic Pipe Line Co. lost track of 277,000 gallons of gasoline. One of them was my 10-year-old son, Wade.

From that day forward, I pledged that I would dedicate my life to making a change in the pipeline industry so no one else would have to die such a horrible death. My family and I wanted to send a message to Olympic and the other companies involved that what they did was unconscionable. We did it in the only language corporations understand: We filed a lawsuit, and we asked for enough money that those companies would think twice before they made the same mistakes.

Now state Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Whatcom County, is championing legislation that would sacrifice the rights of ordinary people to the convenience of big corporations.

It would let companies such as Olympic walk away from their responsibility for killing and maiming innocent people. And it would provide virtual immunity for government agencies that are supposed to be protecting our most vulnerable citizens, such as children in foster care or disabled adults.

This bill, SB 5728, stands justice on its head. Instead of wrongdoers bearing the cost and accountability for their actions, innocent victims and taxpayers would have to pick up the tab. Corporations and government agencies would go on their merry ways with no more than a slap on the wrist and no reason to change practices that cause harm.

Here's how the world would look under SB 5728:

  • If there are multiple wrongdoers, victims would stand a much smaller chance of being fully compensated for their injuries. The bill would change the way liability is allocated if there's more than one entity at fault. The pipeline explosion was the result of lots of mistakes by at least five companies. If any one of them had been paying attention, the accident might have been prevented. Under Brandland's proposal, a victim would be caught in a deadly serious game of tag in order to get 100 percent compensation. If a company that was 40 percent responsible went out of business, the injured victim would not be able to recover that share of the damages. Many corporations suffer from "Enronitis," with multiple subsidiaries and shell companies that can easily be declared bankrupt to dodge liability.

    This would apply to all damages, including the value of future medical expenses for a victim with serious long-lasting injuries. The result? If wrongdoers don't pay for the victim's medical care, the taxpayers will.
  • Non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases would be capped at $250,000. Not only is this a huge injustice to innocent victims of medical errors, it's a first step toward capping damages in all cases - stripping away the rights of every injured person in the state.

    Here's the problem. Wade didn't have any economic damages. He was too young to hold down a job, so he didn't have any lost wages. He died less than 24 hours after the explosion, so his medical expenses were negligible. Would $250,000 have made a difference to a company the size of Olympic? Considering that the value (at today's prices) of the gasoline that leaked was about twice that amount, and nobody noticed, I doubt it. Washington is one of only five states that doesn't allow punitive damages; this cap would remove one more deterrent to reckless disregard for our safety.
  • Government agencies couldn't be held accountable for their mistakes as long as they tried really hard to do the right thing. Brandland's bill would provide virtual immunity for state social and health services programs. These are the programs that are supposed to be looking out for foster kids, disabled adults and others who can't take care of themselves, as well as corrections programs that are supposed to monitor convicted criminals. An error in judgment can have catastrophic effects, but it would be the injured person - not the agency - left holding the bag.

    Corporations shouldn't be allowed to wreak havoc on innocent people's lives, then walk away free and clear. Otherwise, how many other 10-year-olds' lives will be considered the price of doing business?

Bellingham resident Frank King's son, Wade, Stephen Tsiorvas and Liam Wood were killed in the Olympic Pipe Line rupture and explosion on June 10, 1999.

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