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'Special interests' blocked bill, supporters say

Estate of slain St. Helens caseworker Jennifer Lynn Warren seeks damages from state


by: FILE PHOTO - Jennifer Warren, the Columbia Community Mental Health caseworker who was stabbed to death by patient Brent K. Redd as she brought medication to his apartment in May 2012.Advocates for a bill that failed to move through the Oregon Legislative Assembly this year blamed “special interests” for blocking an effort by Columbia County’s legislators to allow the estate of a public employee who was killed on the job to sue for recompense.

House Bill 4048 was introduced this year by state Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, in the lawmaker’s second attempt to allow the family of Jennifer Lynn Warren, a Columbia Community Mental Health caseworker from St. Helens who was stabbed to death by a mentally ill patient in 2012, to seek and win legal damages from the state.

But Witt and legal representatives for the Warren estate said the bill was stymied by opponents, with Witt specifically blaming the League of Oregon Cities for its role in the bill’s failure.

“The League was spreading, I think, a great deal of misinformation about the bill’s potential impacts, and were successful in derailing the bill at the broader scale,” said Witt.

He added, “We had some of the finest legal minds in the state of Oregon working on this bill this time. I think the legal experts thought we had developed a bill that was appropriate, fair and just. And I, quite frankly, fault the League of Oregon Cities.”

Attempts to narrow down the bill’s scope, making it more specific to the Warren case in particular, were unsuccessful in securing the support needed to move forward, Witt said.

Scott Winkels, lobbyist and policy advisor for the League, said the organization opposed the bill over concerns that it would expose public entities to tort liability for which they were unprepared. He said the League preferred an approach that would have allowed the estate of a public employee murdered on the job, such as Warren, to claim $500,000 in workers’ compensation.

“We had put forward a reasonable alternative ... that would have guaranteed [a] benefit to the family,” said Winkels.

Several state agencies, including the Oregon Department of Justice, also opposed HB4048, Winkels said.

Mike Sahagian, attorney for the Warren estate, described Witt, state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, and Rep. Jeff Barker of Aloha, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, as instrumental supporters of the legislation. But he and Jim Horn, personal representative for the estate, said the bill was ultimately confounded by politics.

“We thought we had the bill all teed up and ready to go for 2014, and not surprisingly, a bunch of special interests came out of the woodwork,” Sahagian lamented. “In a nutshell, they more or less ran the clock out on us, because it was a short session.”

HB4048 advanced out of the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 13 on a 6-2 vote, but it was bottled up in the House Ways and Means Committee until the legislative session adjourned last Friday, March 7.

Horn said the bill’s opponents used “every excuse in the book” against the legislation.

“There were a lot of backers down there, but I think some of the special interests got to them,” said Horn.

Witt left the door open to another attempt to pass the same or a similar bill in 2015, during a longer legislative session.

“That’s the million-dollar question at this point,” said Witt. “I think we have some very good legal minds that are taking a look at the situation, taking a look at the various amendments that are proposed in the bill and seeing what we can do for another round.”

According to a letter from Horn published in the Spotlight on Jan. 31, the Warren estate is unable to hold the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board liable for Warren’s “wrongful death” due to what he described as a “loophole” in the law.

Warren was killed May 20 by Brent K. Redd Jr. in Redd’s St. Helens apartment while there to administer his medication. Redd was under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board at the time, having previously been convicted except for reason of insanity of a 2005 attempted murder.

Redd was convicted last year of murder except for the reason of insanity in the stabbing death of Warren. He was remanded into the custody of the Oregon Health Authority after his 2013 conviction.