Prison lawsuit study casts wide net, catches little

I listened in on a conference call this morning as California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse rolled out a report called “Citizens in Chains,” arguing that the state spends too much dealing with prison inmates’ lawsuits and so should pass new laws to weed out frivolous cases from the get-go.

“On average, prisoners file more than two lawsuits every business day, costing the state more than $191 million over the past six years,” the report says. “Given the budget cuts that all of California’s departments are facing this year, the $32 million spent on average each year for prisoner-initiated litigation could certainly be reappropriated for programs more in line with taxpayers’ interests.”

“Some lawsuits of course have merit and need to proceed through the civil justice system,” San Diego CALA president Lorie Zapf said on the conference call.

The report provides a few anecdotes: an inmate who sued over not being allowed to receive certain magazines and catalogs; a convicted murder who sued claming prison security lockdowns caused him stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, and muscle cramps (and won $39,000 in punitive damages from a federal jury); and a death-row inmate who unsuccessfully sued an author and publisher for $62 million, claiming they’d smeared his “good name” and “hurt his prospects for future employment.”

With “such a huge mounting of litigation each year since 2003… you can only extrapolate that a lot of these suits would not be there if we had these reforms,” Zapf said.

But that’s a lot of extrapoliation. The report notes the state departments of Justice and Corrections and Rehabilitation together have 135.3 staff positions dedicated to handling inmate lawsuits; that CDCR has spent $5.6 million on outside counsel since mid-2002; and that settlements and judgments for adult inmates have cost $89.5 million since mid-2000 — but nowhere does it estimate how much of these costs are due to what it would deem frivolous litigation.

And if the state has had to pay out $23.3 million in legal settlements and $66.2 million in judgments to inmates in the past eight years, perhaps judges and juries don’t see a lot of these lawsuits as quite so frivolous after all.

The report goes on to cite two bills which it claims would’ve helped with “these often ridiculous lawsuits:”

Each year, common sense reforms are brought before the Legislature and each year they are rejected when the personal injury bar calls in the favors they purchase from legislators through their campaign contributions. This past year, Assembly Bill 1891, which would have allowed courts to carve frivolous claims out of a lawsuit while allowing the portions of a suit with merit to continue, failed to pass out of committee. This bill also would have given judges the authority to order payment of attorney’s fees for frivolous or delaying tactics. Senate Bill 423, which would have capped punitive damages awards at three times compensatory damages, suffered the same fate.

Yet both those bills go far, far beyond prison walls. An Assembly Judiciary Committee staff analysis of AB 1891 found the bill “revives an obsolete code section that was allowed to effectively sunset and has been replaced by a longstanding alternative approach that was enacted and repeatedly extended with unanimous bipartisan support;” it also found the bill appears to create multiple inconsistent standards for evaluating and penalizing improper conduct in court proceedings.” The committee cast a 7-3 party-line vote to kill the bill in March.

And a Senate Judiciary Committee staff analysis of SB 423, which was supported by the California Chamber of Commerce, found it “would be more restrictive than U.S. Supreme Court rulings and would even limit punitive damages in cases of extraordinarily reprehensible conduct.” That committee killed that bill on a 3-2 party-line vote in January.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.