Written by Thomas B. Stebbins
Despite the rhetoric, some things in Albany never change.
In a carefully engineered 11th-hour move last week, the New York State Legislature passed a bill making it easier for plaintiffs to sue the municipalities and public entities of New York. The bill was rushed through committee and ordered directly to the floor, where it passed both houses without a single word of debate. Few legislators ever read the bill, and even fewer fully understood its impact.
The bill, innocuously titled the "Uniform Notice of Claims Act," extends the time period for filing certain lawsuits against public entities and centralizes the filing of claims with the secretary of state. With tens of thousands of lawsuits filed against our public institutions each year, it is easy to see how the secretary of state's office could be quickly overwhelmed with pending litigation, and delay actual notice to the defendant municipalities.
Of course, when local governments get sued, taxpayers foot the bill. In New York, our cities, towns, villages and counties are overburdened with lawsuits. Local governments are often roped into claims because they have "deep pockets" and are perceived as an easy target because they are under pressure to settle, rather than fight a claim and incur the costs of litigation.
In fact, a study by the University at Albany showed that from 2005 to 2009, our municipalities paid over $1 billion annually in settlement and judgment claims alone — to say nothing of the insurance and legal costs required to defend against the constant threat of lawsuits. To taxpayers across the state, this new legislation means higher costs or more cuts to services.
The groups representing our municipalities, such as the New York Conference of Mayors and the Association of Towns, expressed their opposition, but the speed with which the bill was passed made deliberation all but impossible. And while taxpayers and local governments lose out, one interest group will benefit handsomely — the lawyers. As New York taxpayers are beginning to realize, it is difficult to compete with the trial lawyer lobby, the third-largest political contributor in the state in 2011, according to a recent study by the New York Public Interest Research Group.
While the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly, there is still an opportunity to stop this handout to the trial lawyers — Gov. Andrew Cuomo can veto the legislation. The governor has said he is serious about mandate relief and committed to helping our municipalities live under the tax cap. Here is an opportunity for this governor to put taxpayers first, not special interests, and kill the bill.
Stebbins is the executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.