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Tuesday, April 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aurora bus wreck tops county list of $10.9 million for claims, suits

Seattle Times staff reporter

When a recluse named Silas Cool shot a bus driver to death and sent a Metro bus flying off the Aurora Bridge in 1998, he caused an immense amount of grief - and a costly bill for King County taxpayers.

King County spent $2.3 million last year to settle claims from people injured in that accident, about a fifth of the $10.9 million total the county paid in claims and settlements for damages.

The county also spent well more than a million dollars for incidents involving sexual harassment, prompting officials to launch programs to train supervisors and employees about proper behavior at work.

The top two payments made by the county last year were to victims of the Aurora crash: $767,000 to a man who lost an arm and a leg in the crash, and $600,000 to a woman who suffered head injuries.

The Nov. 27, 1998, crash injured 36 people and left three dead, including Cool, who shot himself. The bus ran off the Aurora Bridge and fell on an apartment building.

Though the county was not responsible for the crash, King County Executive Ron Sims and others in his administration decided the county should pay the medical bills of each victim and help the most seriously injured to recover financially and emotionally. The claims in 1999 included $577,518 in medical bills.

Several claims are still pending from the crash, which means the cost to the county will probably go higher.

"The incident was viewed as a tragedy of the community that required a community solution," said Jim Anshutz, county director of risk management.

"It was just the humanitarian thing to do," said Elaine Kraft, spokeswoman for Sims.

The issue was community responsibility, not liability.

"There is no liability when you deal with a random act of violence. Yet there are still victims," said Dan Williams, spokesman for the King County Department of Transportation. "The incident, by its very nature, was not preventable."

Metro Transit buses, which serve about 75 million riders each year, are traditionally the biggest source of claims against the county. Last year, including the Aurora crash, the county spent $4.7 million to settle claims and suits from accidents and damages from its buses.

But the county also paid out $4.18 million to settle suits outside of Metro for accidents, discrimination or harassment, property damage and other losses, not including fees and related costs. Total payments were about $110,000 less than in 1998. The county is self-insured, and payments come from the regular county budget.

Two of the 10 largest claims last year involved sexual harassment. The county paid $550,000 as a class-action lawsuit was headed to trial. The suit was filed in 1998 by female guards at King County jails. The guards claimed county officials ignored inmates' abuse directed at female correctional officers, leading to a permissive atmosphere and a sexually hostile work environment.

Leann Phinney received $475,000 for wrongful termination, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination by Metro employees.

The county also paid sexual-harassment claims from employees of the Sheriff's Office ($135,000) and its solid-waste division ($100,000), among others.

The amounts and frequency of the claims involving sexual harassment were significant enough that the county has instituted programs to reduce the problem.

Anshutz said specialists from the county department of human resources now arrange meetings with supervisors the moment an accusation of harassment occurs. Also, they have prepared a video and are working on a Web site to train workers and supervisors about proper behavior at work.

The county also paid large settlements because of actions by police officers. In 1997 King County sheriff's Sgt. Mathias Bachmeier was convicted of killing James Bradley Wren as part of an attempt to blame Wren for an arson. Bachmeier had burned his own house to collect insurance. Last year Wren's relatives received $300,000 in a settlement from the county.

The smallest claim the county paid last year was $6 for a bottle of nail polish that guards at Shoreline District Court accidentally broke during a security screening.

Billie Lee, the bottle's owner, said she wasn't going to bill the county for that, but a female guard insisted and even pulled out an Avon catalog to find the price of the bottle.

"She was the one who made me fill out the paperwork," Lee said. "She said, `No, we broke it, and you have it coming.' "

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Top claims paid by King County

Name Claim Amount paid

Charles Moreno Injured in Aurora bus crash $767,000

Catherine Injured in Aurora bus crash $600,000

McGarry

Linda Holloway Sex discrimination, $550,000

and jail guards harassment

Megan Dierickx Injured in accident with bus $500,000

Janet M. Yates Security guard injured by $500,000

falling lockers in courthouse

Leann Phinney Wrongful termination, $475,000

sex harassment, discrimination

Rex and Murder of James Bradley Wren $300,000

Shirley Wren by sheriff's deputy

Source: King County Office of Risk Management

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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