ZURIK: Obscure provision in La. constitution allows government entities to avoid paying settlements indefinitely
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Mercedes Barrios loved her kids, all of them. Along with her two biological children, she cared for and taught hundreds of others over her 30-year career as a teacher. Barrios was fluent in three languages and taught Spanish and French in New Orleans.
In October 2002, Barrios’ life changed when she was hit by a school bus that ran a stop sign. The crash flipped her van and left her in serious pain. Among her injuries, her son says she had eight herniated disks. Despite surgeries, Barrios found little relief.
“She was basically bedridden for a while. Once they conducted the surgeries, it didn’t heal anything. I mean, the pain kind of intensified. My mother wasn’t big on pain pills either. At times, she would receive multiple spasms to where she couldn’t even walk,” said Robert Barrios.
In 2003, Mercedes Barrios filed a lawsuit against the operator of the bus, the Orleans Parish School Board, which was also her employer.
In 2008, the school board settled with Barrios, promising to pay her $492,480. However, more than a decade later, school board records show Barrios hasn’t been paid a dime.
Barrios passed away in 2019 after a battle with liver cancer. Her son says the school board betrayed his mother. Despite the pain from the crash and the money she was owed, Mercedes Barrios continued to teach.
“I mean, she kept pushing even though the school board kind of betrayed her. She kept pushing for her kids. And what makes it worse is in the event that they do settle, when they settle, my mother won’t see one dime. Because my mother passed. That’s what’s even worse,” said Barrios. “My mother had two surgeries, couldn’t walk, so where’s her benefit?”
Robert says along with helping in recovery, the money could have helped his mother as she battled cancer in her later years.
“She had to get vitamin C shots every week because her immune system was shot tremendously down all of a sudden, and I was paying $1,000 a week for her shots,” said Robert.
Barrios’ attorney says the school board refused to help Mercedes, even though the funds existed to pay.
“They just basically turned a blind eye. The school board, after Hurricane Katrina, files a lawsuit against Lexington and its insurers. They received over, I think, $141 million from the insurance companies and they got paid for their losses. And yet, Miss Barrios didn’t get paid for her loss,” said attorney Anthony Engolia.
Barrios is not alone. The Orleans Parish School Board has refused to pay 161 separate judgments totaling nearly $32 million.
“It’s hypocritical. I mean, here it is: They have this money. They have these losses. They sued their insurer to say, ‘Hey, we have these losses.’ And they get paid. And when someone sues them, you know, it’s like, ‘Well, you got a judgment, fine. You know, wait in line.’ That’s basically what this is telling you,” said Engolia.
No one can force the school board to pay because of an obscure provision in Louisiana’s constitution. That provision says funds can’t be seized after a lawsuit. They can only be paid out if governments or municipalities appropriate the money. So as long as the government, or in this case the school board, doesn’t appropriate the money, nothing can be done.
The school board issued the following statement to FOX 8:
The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) is charged with educating scholars and serving as the fiduciary of public funds. With this year’s annual general fund budget for OPSB set at $35 million and the settlements totaling $31 million, the Board must balance the needs of its current students with the need to fulfill its past settlement and judgment obligations.
Nevertheless, this Board recognizes the importance of fulfilling past settlement and judgment obligations. This is why the Board took action in July of 2022 to allocate $500,000 towards the payments owed on resolved claims. It is not uncommon for public agencies in New Orleans and across the country to have unpaid settlements, but the board is committed to fulfilling both its financial responsibilities as well as its obligations to the students and families of Orleans Parish.
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FOX 8 sent emails to law professors in every state across the country. Of those who responded, only Kansas appeared to have a similar provision in its constitution. We then filed public records requests with five Kansas cities; Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City, Overland Park, and Olathe. Each city told us they didn’t have any unpaid judgments or settlements. So, despite a similar rule, the cities appear to allocate the money and pay the claims.
“Once again, the state of Louisiana seems to be outside of the norm. There are so many issues that the state of Louisiana does that it’s either the only state in the union that does it or it’s one of three or four states. So, it’s not best practice just from a public policy standpoint. You know, we always look at: What is the norm? What is best practice? The state of Louisiana, when it comes to its judgments, does not operate based on best practice,” said Dillard University Political Analyst Robert Collins, Ph.D.
The provision was inserted into the Louisiana constitution back in 1973. FOX 8 found transcripts from that meeting in the state archives. One delegate is quoted as saying, “If you get a judgment against the state of Louisiana, the state of Louisiana, if it chooses to, may appropriate the funds. If it doesn’t, too bad. But we have to live with that.”
“I mean, it almost sounds like a joke that some member of the Constitutional Convention or some state legislator put in there, maybe thinking that nobody was going to read it,” said Collins.
This year, FOX 8 has taken a closer look at unpaid judgments in New Orleans. Both the city and the Sewerage and Water Board owe millions.
But we wanted to see the impact on residents statewide. We requested records from more than 100 agencies across the state. That included every parish government as well as school boards and sheriff’s offices. Of the 128 requests, we received and calculated responses from 99 of those.
We found the unpaid settlements are mainly a New Orleans area issue. Only a handful of municipalities outside the city have unpaid judgments. Eighty-nine entities had no unpaid judgments or settlements.
Rapides Parish and Lafourche Parish owe less than $100,000. St. Tammany, Plaquemines, and Washington Parishes each owe less than $6 million. But four entities - the City of New Orleans, The Orleans Parish School Board, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, and the Housing Authority of New Orleans combined owe people who have sued more than $85 million.
Collins says a change to the state’s constitution is the only way to force entities to pay.
“The only thing that would change this is if the Louisiana legislature proposed an amendment to the Constitution and put it on the ballot,” Collins says.
If that happened, the amendment proposal would then go before Louisiana voters, who would decide whether to approve it.
But Robert Barrios says the school board’s refusal to pay has left him emotionally drained.
“It’s hard for me to swallow. I try not to think about it. I put it in the corner. I leave it because I still have to function day by day. I mean, I still haven’t come to grips with my mother’s passing, to be honest with you. I just leave it in the corner, because I have to function still. But knowing that my mother could have possibly been a little more comfortable, not in pain, not struggling, not having to get up every day [until] her body just gave out and she couldn’t go anywhere, it bothers me. It really does,” said Barrios.
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