Inadequate training and a fatal U-turn cost Alaska government $3 million, settlement documents say

    The Alaska Senate Finance Committee is seen on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

    Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - The state of Alaska will pay $3 million to the family of a man killed in a 2018 traffic accident caused when an Alaska state trooper made an abrupt U-turn in front of him.

    The case is the largest of six legal settlements listed by the Alaska Department of Law in March amendments to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s state budget proposal for the upcoming year.

    Among the others are a $1.5 million settlement with a former Department of Law attorney who won an age-discrimination claim, $800,000 for a settlement in a dispute over contractor wages, and $1 million in attorney fees owed to the people who successfully overturned Alaska’s limits on donations to political candidates.

    The settlements were revealed Monday in a presentation to members of the Senate Finance Committee.

    “In the operating budget every year, we have a section on claims and settlements,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, “and we try to line-item them out for clarity with the public funds. It’s how the judgments get paid: We have to appropriate it after the courts rule.”

    Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, noted in committee that the costs outlined in the documents do not include what the state paid for its unsuccessful legal defense.

    A fatal crash

    On July 1, 2018, Aaron Thomas Smith of Eagle River died on the Seward Highway in a crash triggered when an Alaska state trooper abruptly slammed on his vehicle’s brakes and pulled a U-turn in order to pursue a speeding car that was headed in the opposite direction.

    At the time, troopers attributed the crash to vehicles following too closely on the highway.

    Smith’s widow sued the Alaska Department of Public Safety, alleging Trooper Richard Chambers was to blame for the accident.

    In sworn depositions given before trial, department officials said training in U-turn procedure is optional for new troopers at their training academy, and Chambers said he had not undertaken any field training on the topic.

    Department officials blamed Chambers for the accident, with Troopers Capt. Richard Roberts stating in a deposition that Chambers failed to consider the safety of other drivers and that the department would have liked him to have considered the issue for a few more seconds before turning around.

    Retired judge Elaine Andrews oversaw a round of mediation intended to avoid trial and suggested what became the ultimate settlement, said attorney Anthony Banker, representing Smith’s widow.

    The Department of Law concluded, in documents outlining the settlement to the state Office of Management and Budget, that the state was liable because of “negligence on behalf of the trooper, who was in violation of Department of Public Safety Policy.”

    Chambers, Banker said, was not administratively punished but requested desk duties after the accident. An official with the Department of Public Safety said he remains employed by the agency.

    Banker declined an interview on behalf of Smith’s widow but said her primary goal in bringing the case “was to change policy to ensure this wouldn’t happen to other people. She was saddened and perplexed to learn through depositions that this maneuver, as executed, was a violation of existing policy, and that troopers working highway patrol appear to be unaware.”

    The settlement is listed as $300,000 in documents provided to the Senate Finance Committee, but the full settlement agreement shows a $3 million total, with legislative approval required for only 10% of the cost.

    Unusually, the settlement includes a clause stating that if the Legislature fails to appropriate the amount, the settlement agreement is void and Banker will file a new lawsuit.

    Banker said that clause, which is new to him, came about after the Legislature balked at paying a settlement owed to Alaska Psychiatric institute doctors illegally fired by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

    Though the settlement was ultimately approved, the settlement agreements filed by the Department of Law this year show new precautionary clauses intended to act as contingencies if the Legislature again balks at a settlement.

    Attorney fees for a lost defense

    Last year, after the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Alaska’s limits on political contributions and the state failed to appeal, the 2022 elections took place without limits on how much a donor could give to a candidate for office.

    Now, the state of Alaska is preparing to pay $1 million to a pair of law firms that represented the plaintiffs who successfully overturned the limits.

    Federal law allows a judge to award “a reasonable attorney’s fee” in civil rights cases, and the state was found to be violating the First Amendment with its prior campaign finance restrictions.

    The state signed the fee agreement in September 2022.

    An age-discrimination case at trial

    Following a 10-day jury trial in October 2022, a Juneau court awarded former Assistant Attorney General Joan Wilkerson almost $1.2 million after she successfully proved that the Department of Law denied her promotions because of her age, then fired her when she complained.

    Wilkerson was fired under the administration of former Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, and the jury concluded that damages were warranted because of Wilkerson’s lost wages and retirement income.

    The settlement agreement submitted by the department to the Legislature is almost $1.5 million after accounting for costs, fees and interest, according to documents submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.

    Attorney Mark Choate, who represented Wilkerson, could have requested additional attorney fees but did not do so, the department noted in its documents. Choate did not immediately answer a phone call on Friday seeking additional information.

    The department said in documents submitted to OMB that it has “adopted a formal policy outlining the promotion process within the Department of Law.”

    “Further,” the department said, “we have provided training and expectation on how supervisors and management address performance issues with current employees.”

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