HB 311: Government Accountability
This bill passed the House and Senate.
If a Utah government actor or entity harms an individual or their property, it is far more difficult to hold them financially liable than it would be if they were a non-governmental actor or entity. The reason for this is because Utah government employees and entities are shielded from most lawsuits under the Governmental Immunity Act.
Utah’s immunity law was intended to prevent frivolous and costly lawsuits against the government. But due to the complicated way it was written, it has created extremely problematic barriers, preventing people with legitimate claims against the government from ever moving forward in the courts, or receiving the full amount of monetary damages due to caps imposing an arbitrary barrier.
House Bill 311, sponsored by Representative Mike McKell, aims to solve some of the problems with Utah’s immunity laws. It first limits a court from dismissing lawsuits brought against the government due to technical errors made by the claimant when filing the required “notice of claim” to the entity they are bringing a lawsuit against. Many individuals who have valid claims have had their case fail due to simple mistakes in this confusing process, and this bill would ensure that these minor mistakes don’t bar them from pursuing accountability.
The bill also requires the government to respond to the claimant when they receive a notice about the claim that’s being pursued against them. If the government entity believes they are not the correct body the claimant is trying to sue, the entity must inform the claimant of the alleged error. If the individual provides notice to the correct government entity and doesn’t receive a response, there will be a penalty of an expanded statute of limitations to three years.
There is currently a $2 million cap on the aggregate amount of individual awards that can be awarded in a single occurrence. HB 311 increases this cap to $3,000,000. This is a good change because although $2 million may be a lot for one or two people involved in an incident, it may not be enough to cover an incident with a dozen victims. In order to adequately cover the costs of damages for multiple people involved in one incident, the cap needs to be expanded.
HB 311 would also waive immunity in cases where the injury resulted from certain claims of sexual battery.
If an individual endures damages by a government entity beyond what the monetary cap allows them to be paid, which is currently $745,200 in personal injury fees, and $295,000 for property damage fees, this bill sets up a process for them to petition for excess damages. The board of examiners currently oversees these processes, which is sufficient at times. But other times, legal experts are needed to help make better-informed decisions. To address this, the bill would create a process to allow a retired judge familiar with the law to act as a “special master” to be appointed to each case. This master would then decide whether or not to award damages. If a jury awards damages beyond the cap, the board of examiners can decide the outcome based on the facts of the case, without the involvement of a special master.
The bill clarifies that money from the General Fund Budget Reserve Account can be used to pay for claims beyond the cap which are approved by the board of examiners.
Damages caused by government need a remedy, and this bill helps better ensure that justice can be served when a government employee is at fault.