The county of Marin is being accused of violating state law for instances in which it did not inform the public of settlements in personal injury lawsuits. The accusations come from a Mill Valley lawyer, Carter Zinn, who claims the country stretches the limits of the Brown Act in its practices in personal injury settlements. The Brown Act precedes over meetings of the California legislator on local levels. It maintains the laws for public access to information.
After a recent meeting, it was reported County Counsel Brian Washington admitted the county reveals personal injury settlements only rarely but still claimed the county follows the Brown Act. He maintained that when another party approves to the final settlement agreement it is not general practice for the county to then announce it.
Carter Zinn is representing a man from Mill Valley, Allan Rosenthal, who had sued the county for his 2014 bicycle accident where he was hit by a car and suffered serious head injury on the Panoramic Highway on Mount Tamalpais. The area where he was hit is known as Four Corners. Three roads meet there, Panoramic Highway, Sequoia Valley Road and Muir Woods Road, and it is known for being a dangerous spot.
Rosenthal was hit as he biked northbound on Panoramic and a southbound car turned left onto Sequoia Valley Road. His suit alleged that there is too much of a distance between all the points that meet there. There are eight lanes that converge with limited sight. Panoramic comes from an oblique angle to the north. Sequoia Valley Road and Muir Wood Road do not meet directly across from each other. There had been at least 20 accidents in the spot from 1998 to 2015. A county study pointed out the dangerous rad configuration and the accidents it has caused in 2003. The study gave three options for improving the situation:
- installing a roundabout with a cost of $357,000
- channelization, signing and striping with a cost of $74,000
- signing and striping alone with a cost of $30,000
Mr. Allan Rosenthal had recently settled with the county for $300,000. The settlement stipulated that neither attorney nor client could initiate publication of the terms or the settlement. The county maintained they would reveal it at a public meeting of the county’s Board of Supervisors. Zinn and his client claim the settlement was not announced at that meeting.
Zinn explained that he searched out the minutes of the meeting and the settlement announcement was not present. His response was to wonder if other such settlements announcements were similarly neglected. A search of the county’s electronic archives of the meeting minutes and agendas back to 2005 began. The result was zero reports of personal injury claims in any meetings minutes.
This practice may be a violation of a portion of the Brown Act. The portion in question states “If the legislative body accepts a settlement offer signed by the opposing party, the body shall report its acceptance and identify the substance of the agreement in open session at the public meeting during which the closed session is held.” Another section immediately following this one states that if final approval rests with another party the county doesn’t have to disclose it until someone requests it.
The First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting freedom of speech and the public’s right to know, has been reported as saying that the county may be justified in its practices but it is purely technical. The motive may be to discourage citizens from suing the county. If they see other people coming away with huge settlements, they may fabricate a lawsuit or go forth with frivolous suits.
Marin County is not the only county in the California that follows this slightly skewed version of the Brown Act. Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said he believes that 99% of the counties in the state follow the same procedure. While most officials aware or involved in the case agree that the county is justified, they also agree that a fresh look should be taken at the procedure.