Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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Todd McLaughlin was riding his bicycle on a Seattle street when the door of a parked vehicle opened right into him. McLaughlin fell, suffered injuries, and sought insurance coverage for various losses, including his medical expenses. McLaughlin’s insurance policy covered those expenses if McLaughlin was a “pedestrian” at the time of the accident. McLaughlin argued a bicyclist was a pedestrian, relying on the definition of “pedestrian” found in the Washington laws governing casualty insurance. The trial court held a bicyclist was not a pedestrian, reasoning that the plain meaning of "pedestrian" excluded bicyclists. The Court of Appeals affirmed, relying largely on its view that the Washington statute defined pedestrian for purposes of casualty insurance, excluded bicyclists. The Washington Supreme Court reversed. The Washington legislature defined “pedestrian” for purposes of casualty insurance in Washington broadly in RCW 48.22.005(11). The Supreme Court found that definition included bicyclists and applied to the insurance contract at issue here. "Even if we were to hold otherwise, at the very least, the undefined term 'pedestrian' in the insurance contract at issue must be considered ambiguous in light of the various definitions of 'pedestrian' discussed in this opinion. Being ambiguous, we must construe the insurance term favorably to the insured. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings." View "McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review related to the boundaries of the corporate attorney-client privilege and how it operated when in conflict with a plaintiff’s physician-patient privilege. In 2015, Doug Hermanson sideswiped an unoccupied vehicle and crashed into a utility pole. Hermanson was transported to Tacoma General Hospital, which was owned by MultiCare Health System Inc. Hermanson was treated by several MultiCare employees, including two nurses and a crisis intervention social worker. However, the physician who treated Hermanson, Dr. Patterson, was an independent contractor of MultiCare pursuant to a signed agreement between MultiCare and Trauma Trust, his employer. Trauma Trust was created by MultiCare; Dr. Patterson had his own office at Tacoma General Hospital and was expected to abide by MultiCare’s policies and procedures. During Hermanson’s treatment, an unidentified person at Tacoma General Hospital conducted a blood test on Hermanson that showed a high blood alcohol level. As a result, someone reported this information to the police, and the police charged Hermanson with first degree negligent driving and hit and run of an unattended vehicle. Based on this disclosure of his blood alcohol results, Hermanson sued MultiCare and multiple unidentified parties for negligence, defamation/false light, false imprisonment, violation of Hermanson’s physician-patient privilege, and unauthorized disclosure of Hermanson's confidential health information. MultiCare retained counsel to jointly represent MultiCare, Dr. Patterson, and Trauma Trust, reasoning that while Dr. Patterson and Trauma Trust were not identified parties, Hermanson’s initial demand letter implicated both parties. Hermanson objected to this joint representation and argued that MultiCare’s ex parte communications with Dr. Patterson violated Hermanson’s physician-patient privilege. The Supreme Court determined that Dr. Patterson still maintained a principal-agent relationship with MultiCare, and served as the "functional equivalent" of a MultiCare employee; therefore MultiCare could have ex parte communications with the doctor. The nurse and social worker privilege were "essentially identical in purpose" to the physician-patient privilege, making ex parte communications permissible between MultiCare and the nurse and social worker. View "Hermanson v. Multicare Health Sys., Inc." on Justia Law

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Brian Ehrhart died within days of contracting hantavirus near his Issaquah, Washington home in early 2017. His widow, Sandra Ehrhart, sued King County’s public health department, Swedish Medical Center, and an emergency room physician, arguing all three had negligently caused Brian's death. King County asserted public duty as an affirmative defense, arguing it was not liable for Brian’s death because it did not owe him any duty as an individual. Ehrhart moved for partial summary judgment asking the court to dismiss this defense and others. The trial court granted Ehrhart’s motion but conditioned its ruling on the jury finding particular facts. King County appealed, and the Washington Supreme Court accepted direct discretionary review. The issues presented were: (1) whether the trial court could properly grant summary judgment conditioned on the jury finding particular facts; and (2) whether the regulations governing King COunty's responsibility to issue health advisories created a duty owed to Brian individually as opposed to a non actionable duty owed to the public as a whole. The Supreme Court determined the trial court could not properly grant summary judgment conditioned on the jury finding particular facts; summary judgment was appropriate only when there were no genuine issues of material fact. The Court concluded King County did not owe an individualized duty to Brian, and no exception to the public duty doctrine applied in this case. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the trial court, and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of King County on its public duty doctrine defense. View "Ehrhart v. King County" on Justia Law

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A wine bottle shattered in Rolfe Godfrey's hand while he was working as a bartender, injuring him. He filed a products liability suit against the winery, St. Michelle Wine Estates, Ltd. and the bottle manufacturer, Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc. (collectively, Ste. Michelle). The case was assigned to Pierce County, Washington Superior Court Judge Garold Johnson, who set the initial case schedule, including discovery deadlines. The case was later reassigned to Judge Katherine Stolz, who, upon a stipulated and jointly proposed order, extended the parties' deadlines to disclose their witnesses. This case turned on the nature of that stipulated order. Two months later, and before Judge Stolz made any other rulings in the case, Godfrey filed an affidavit of prejudice and a motion for Judge Stolz's recusal under former RCW 4.12.040 and .050. Judge Stolz denied the motion, concluding that the earlier stipulated order to extend witness disclosure deadlines involved discretion and, thus, the affidavit of prejudice was not timely. Judge Stolz presided over the bench trial. Ste. Michelle prevailed, and Godfrey appealed. The Washington Supreme Court concluded that under Washington law, a party does not lose the right to remove a judge when the judge takes certain categories of actions, including arranging the calendar. The Court held that a stipulated order extending discovery deadlines that did not delay the trial or otherwise affect the court's schedule was an order arranging the calendar under the former RCW 4.12.050. Accordingly, the affidavit of prejudice was timely, and the case should have been reassigned to a different judge. View "Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Ltd." on Justia Law

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Gildardo Vargas was working on a construction project when a concrete-carrying hose hit him in the head, and caused a severe traumatic brain injury. Vargas and his family sued the general contractor, the concrete supplier, and the concrete pumper for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the general contractor. After review of the trial court record, the Washington Supreme Court reversed, finding genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the general contractor was directly liable for providing a safe workplace, and whether any breach proximately caused Vargas’ injury. View "Vargas v. Inland Washington, LLC" on Justia Law

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Michael Weaver, a former City of Everett firefighter, contracted melanoma. He filed a temporary disability claim, which the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (Department) denied, finding the melanoma was not work related. The melanoma spread to Weaver's brain, for which he filed a permanent disability claim. The Department denied it as precluded by the denial of the temporary disability claim. The issue his case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata properly precluded Weaver's permanent disability claim. The Court found collateral estoppel did not apply because the doctrine would work an injustice in this situation, given that Weaver did not have sufficient incentive to fully and vigorously litigate the temporary disability claim in light of the disparity of relief between the two claims. Likewise, the Court held that res judicata did not apply because the two claims did not share identical subject matter, given that the permanent disability claim did not exist at the time of the temporary disability claim. View "Weaver v. City of Everett" on Justia Law

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Cesar Beltran-Serrano, mentally ill and homeless, was shot multiple times by a Tacoma, Washington Police Officer, Michel Volk. Beltran-Serrano survived the shooting, and through a guardian ad liter, filed suit for negligence and assault and battery against the City of Tacoma. The superior court dismissed the negligence claims on summary judgment, agreeing with the City that Beltran-Serrano’s legal redress would have been as an intentional tort claim for assault and battery. The Washington Supreme Court reversed: “the fact that Officer Volk’s conduct may constitute assault and battery does not preclude a negligence claim premised on her alleged failure to use ordinary care to avoid unreasonably escalating the encounter to the use of deadly force.” The Court concluded Beltran-Serrano presented evidence to allow a jury to find that the City failed to follow accepted practices in Officer Volk’s interactions with him leading up to the shooting, and that his negligence resulted in his injuries. View "Beltran-Serrano v. City of Tacoma" on Justia Law

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On October 30, 2013, Consuelo Prieto Mariscal was driving her minivan in Pasco, Washington, with her daughter. There were vehicles, including an orange, pickup truck and a van, on the right side of the road. As Prieto passed the orange pickup truck, she heard a noise, felt her van jump a little, and saw a boy, Brayan, lying on the ground. Realizing Brayan was seriously hurt, her daughter called 911. Brayan was taken to a nearby hospital. Prieto and her daughter both told the police they did not see how the accident happened. There were no other eyewitnesses, and though the officer only spoke to Prieto and her daughter, he noted in his report the "bicyclist pulled into the roadway [and] was stuck on the left side and fell to the ground. The passenger side front tire drove over the child['s] right front leg." Brayan gave a number of statements, the most detailed of which related his right shoelace got stuck in the spokes of his bicycle and his right leg was run over when he leaned over to untangle the lace. Monica Diaz Barriga Figueroa, Brayan's mother, retained counsel, and signed a blank personal injury protection (PIP) application form. The English-speaking legal assistant completed the form for the Spanish-speaking Diaz, pulling language of the accident from the police report. The significant difference between the PIP form and Brayan's testimony became a central issue at trial. Prieto's counsel stressed the differences between Diaz's and Brayan's testimony and the PIP form; Diaz's counsel stress the PIP form was based on accounts from people who did not see the accident. At trial, and over Diaz's counsel's objection, Prieto's counsel referenced the PIP form as a statement against interest. Diaz's counsel moved to exclude the PIP form as privileged. The issue before the Washington Supreme Court was whether the form could be considered work product entitled to protection from disclosure. The Court determined that in this instance, where the insured gained the status of insured by statute, rather than contract, the form at issue was privileged. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and remanded this matter back to the trial court for a new trial. View "Figueroa v. Mariscal" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question of Washington law to the Washington Supreme Court concerning premises liability. Shannon Adamson, an employee of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), fell approximately 15 feet when the passenger ramp at the Port of Bellingham's (Port) Bellingham Cruise Terminal (BCT) collapsed. The accident caused severe, life-changing injuries. The State of Alaska leased the BCT from the Port, allowing ferries to dock at the BCT and load and unload passengers and their vehicles. The Port elected to not implement an interlock device; when Adamson was operating the passenger ramp, slack was created in some attached cables. When she removed the locking pins, the ramp collapsed, snapped the cables, and Adamson and the ramp fell approximately 15 feet until the ramp caught on the ferry. Adamson and her husband sued the Port in federal court, alleging negligence and seeking damages for medical expenses, loss of wages, pain and suffering and loss of consortium. The federal court determined Adamson was the Port's business invitee; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Adamson and awarded over $16 million in damages. The court found the Port under three separate theories of liability: duty to a business invitee, duty as a landlord, and a promise to perform repairs under the lease contract. The issue presented to the Washington Supreme Court centered on whether a property owner-landlord was liable for injuries that occur on its property when the lessee has exclusive possession at the time of the accident but only priority use under the lease and the landlord has contracted to maintain and repair the premises. The Supreme Court answered the first certified question in the affirmative and consequently, did not address the second question. View "Adamson v. Port of Bellingham" on Justia Law

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L.M. suffered a severe injury during birth and subsequently sued Laura Hamilton, the midwife who delivered him, for negligence. Hamilton prevailed at trial. On appeal, L.M. argued the trial court erred by admitting evidence that natural forces of labor could have caused the injury and testimony from a biomechanical engineer to the same effect. L.M. argued the trial court should have excluded the evidence under Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (1923), and the testimony under ER 702. The Washington Supreme Court found that under Frye, the trial court had to exclude evidence that was not based on generally accepted science. And under ER 702, the trial court had to exclude testimony from unqualified experts and testimony that was unhelpful to the jury. L.M.'s challenge concerned the extent to which the challenged science had to be "generally accepted." And his ER 702 challenge hinged on the amount of discretion an appellate court granted a trial court under the rule. Finding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the challenged evidence, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the trial and appellate courts. View "L.M. v. Hamilton" on Justia Law