Stay out of the path of oncoming government of Guam vehicles at all costs. That’s a clear message from attorneys who are involved in lawsuits against GovGuam for damages related to traffic accidents.

The reason: GovGuam is self-insured and it usually takes years for cases to wind their ways through the claims process and the courts. Even with judgments in hand sometimes there is no money to pay victims. One attorney accused GovGuam of employing delay tactics in the settlement of crash cases.

In one case attorney Robert L. Keogh a personal-injury specialist at the Law Office Robert Keogh said he had to obtain a writ to enforce an award judgment from the court. He and his client then had to wait for the legislature to appropriate the money to the claims fund before they saw anything. The claims fund was set up to provide payments for cases in which GovGuam is found to be liable; however sometimes the fund is dry and awardees must wait for the legislature to make an appropriation to replenish the fund. Keogh recalled another case in which a claim was filed in 1998 and an initial payment of $55 000 was not received until April of 2001. One installment was missed and the remaining balance of $220 000 was made in December 2004.

Claims for damages following accidents involving privately owned vehicles are simple compared to what victims go through when they come up against GovGuam. Most drivers who are involved in auto accidents in Guam and who are not at fault can in most cases simply contact the other parties’ insurance companies and claims are paid. GovGuam saw to it that drivers of non-government vehicles are insured in amounts of $25 000 per person for bodily injury $50 000 per accident for bodily injury and $20 000 for property damage by law.

If the driver of a government of Guam vehicle is at fault in an accident with a privately owned vehicle the chance of a timely settlement is unlikey.

“Get in line” is the advice of William Gavras an attorney with the firm of Gorman & Gavras Law Offices.

Many states on the mainland as well as the federal government are self-insured. GovGuam has statutory immunity granted by the Organic Act its constitution “and so is not liable for damages arising from intentional torts ” says the Organic Act. The Government Claims Act gives a statutory limited waiver of immunity. Many governments have decided it is cost effective to settle claims themselves rather than purchase insurance policies and pay claims. Unlike the federal government attorneys said GovGuam often is unable to pay up.

Assistant Attorney General Charles H. Troutman who for many years was Guam’s compiler of laws said the issue is a matter of law not whether the government has the ability to pay claims. “As far as the general government is concerned it’s more a matter of sovereign immunity than it is immediate fiscal policy.”

R. Todd Thompson an attorney with Mair Mair Spade & Thompson said victims are “up against some age-old laws when it comes to filing a claim.”

“The Government Claims Act is very narrow and the courts strictly construe it. So you have to march through all the paces on the Government Claims Act if you have a claim against the government. What that means is you have to file a claim and the government gets a certain amount of time — six months — to either accept it or deny it or ignore it; and only then after that process has been exhausted can you go to court and bring a lawsuit.”

Troutman said “It’s a matter of cost analysis just like it is with a private company. Is it going to cost more to insure your vehicles with a private insurance firm or is it going to cost you more to pay out the damages according to whatever the limits are. So that’s basically the question.”

There is a ceiling to the amount GovGuam allows itself to be liable for — $300 000.

Sen. B.J. Cruz a former Supreme Court justice said the current system was established to mirror the federal government when the local government was established. “I think they copied the federal claims system of filing a claim and going through that whole process to try to save themselves having to go out and get a policy and pay premiums. But I think in the last four or five years the government of Guam is now finding that it needs to reevaluate how it does those things.”

Attorneys interviewed by the Journal said the system favors GovGuam and its ability to draw out the process out and delay payments. Gavras likened it to someone paying creditors. “They take advantage of the fact they don’t have insurance. They abuse the government claims procedure. They don’t even have to file a government claim. They don’t truly try to solve things at the government claims process; it’s merely a delay platform. It’s probably in part because they don’t have the money. And what do you do with your creditors? You delay — you delay and they’re in a great position to delay.”

Some auto accidents involving GovGuam vehicles are waiting to be closed after many years. In a list obtained from the attorney general’s office many auto accidents involving GovGuam vehicles remained open; one after more than six years. When pressed if any self-insured vehicle claim had ever been settled without a lawsuit both the AG’s staff in charge of claims records and Troutman could not answer positively.

The legislature is where the money comes from and of course it has to be appropriated. The amount in the claims fund varies and according to Troutman “The legislature is very diligent in controlling the money the government pays out in claims.

“It’s a matter of how much the legislature wants to govern the situation and keep control of it and as you know they like to micromanage.”

“Ultimately it’s the legislature’s power and so they provide the Claims Act which is never properly funded but they reserve themselves the right to fund individual large claims as they arise.”

If you are driving and become involved in an accident with a GovGuam vehicle attorneys warn you to file a claim because GovGuam will not begin the paperwork. If you do not file within six months the government will make a motion to dismiss — and it will be. Your claim is your only ticket to sue. And then wait.

Title 5 Chapter 16 of the Guam Claims Act states a person must file a claim within 18 months from the date of the accident. The claim must be filed with the agency involved as well as with the AG’s office. The government then has six months to reject investigate ignore or settle the claim. The claimant than has 18 months to sue the government. If GovGuam does nothing the claimant has two years in which to sue.MBJ