The District of Columbia agency tasked with settling tort claims against the city before they go to court was viewed for years by lawyers as an unhelpful stop-over. Now under new leadership, the Office of Risk Management is hoping to send a new message to the plaintiffs' bar: We're open for business.
Under D.C. law, anyone with a tort claim against the District has to file it first with the Office of Risk Management before pursuing a lawsuit. In theory, the agency was supposed to make an effort to settle claims if the city was liable, avoiding costly litigation. But plaintiffs lawyers say the agency has been plagued by delays and inefficiencies that made it difficult to negotiate settlements, let alone reach one—concerns that agency officials said they shared.
Phillip Lattimore III, the agency's director since 2011, said he's trying to turn things around. Last year, Lattimore hired the first ever attorney-supervisor for the torts program, with the goal of putting someone with litigation experience in charge and building better relationships with the bar. Late last week, the agency hosted its inaugural settlement conference, inviting a few dozen lawyers and claimants with open cases to come in for settlement negotiations.
The agency settled 23 of the 29 claims, for about $416,000, that were discussed during the conference. The cases represented a small portion of the agency's overall docket, but Lattimore said the event was meant to be more of a symbolic gesture to the plaintiffs bar.
"I'm very pleased," Lattimore said of the conference. "I hope this demonstrates to the bar that we're serious about adjudicating these settlement claims and doing it effectively."
Plaintiffs lawyers who took part in the settlement conference said they were cautiously optimistic about the agency's new approach.
"It is encouraging that ORM recognizes the issues and is working on it," said Howard Haley, an attorney with Washington's Williams & Associates who reached settlements for 13 claims during the conference. "But time will be the best decider as to whether the efforts are successful or not."
Solo practitioner Damani Ingram, who settled two claims during the conference, said that in the approximately two years he's been involved in claims against the city, the risk management office has been "hit or miss" in responding once claims were filed and making an effort at settling. "I welcomed the ability to really sit down face to face with somebody who had an interest in trying to resolve the case," he said.
According to agency statistics, there were 1,383 claims filed in 2012. The most common claims involved slip-and-falls, auto accidents involving city-owned vehicles, and property damage (tree branches falling on private property, for instance). Last year, the agency reached $1.63 million in settlements for 530 claims. The agency doesn't track how many claims land in court and how those cases resolve.
The agency, which also handles workers compensation claims for city employees, among other functions, has a tortured past. In 2010, the former director was ousted after an investigation revealed the office failed to transfer millions of dollars deducted from disabled public employee paychecks to pay insurance companies. Amy Mauro was hired that year as the agency's first ever general counsel as the office dealt with fallout from the scandal.
The problems with the workers compensation program turned out to be the "tip of the iceberg," Mauro said. On the torts side, she said she found that plaintiffs lawyers weren't getting a timely response after filing claims and that the agency wasn't making "meaningful" attempts to settle.
Solo practitioner Michael Rosenberg, who settled one personal injury claim during the settlement conference last week, said that in the past it was difficult to get "realistic settlement offers" from the agency. "The whole process just seemed unwieldy," he said. If the settlement conference "was an indication of a realistic desire to settle cases, that's the most we can hope for."
Lattimore pointed to other internal changes as proof of the agency's progress. Until last year, a non-attorney supervised the torts program. Eric Glover, who previously served in the city's Office of the Attorney General, was hired to lead the program last summer.
Tort lawsuits filed against the city are defended by the attorney general's office. If the risk management agency finds the city is liable for a claim before it becomes a lawsuit, though, reaching a settlement is typically less expensive than going to court, taking into consideration the costs of litigating as well as the possible jury awards, Glover said.
Glover acknowledged the office faced an uphill battle in changing its reputation among the private bar. "Not a lot of attorneys realize we're in the business of resolving these claims," he said.
Since 2010, the agency saw some success settling more claims, according to its annual performance reports. In 2010, there were 2,298 claims filed with the office, and the agency settled 454 claims for $1.05 million. By comparison, in 2012 there were fewer claims filed—1,383—and the agency settled 530 claims for $1.63 million.
Lattimore said he'd like to continue holding the settlement conferences on a quarterly basis, but the agency hadn't set specific goals yet for how many claims they wanted to settle each year. The office's priority, he said, was to bring down caseloads to the industry standard of 150 to 200 claims per adjuster. After hiring another claims adjuster in fiscal year 2011, the agency reported that caseloads dropped from around 750 claims per adjuster that year to around 400 claims per adjuster in the following fiscal year.
Besides more effectively handling claims once they're filed, Lattimore said the office was also pushing to identify patterns in the type of claims filed and work with agencies to fix problems before they became liabilities.
Haley said that even in recent months, he'd still experienced delays in hearing back from the agency, but was encouraged by how efficiently the agency ran last week's settlement conference-he said it took less than two hours to reach agreements for 13 claims. "If it proceeds in this manner," he said, "it's definitely real change."