BACKGROUND

Washburn v. City of Federal Way involved the tort liability of a municipality.    Paul Chan Kim murdered his partner, Baerbel K. Roznowski, after a Federal Way police officer served Kim with an anti-harassment order forbidding him to contact or remain near Roznowski.  After the murder, Roznowski’s daughters filed suit against the City of Federal Way (the “City”), alleging that the police officer negligently served the anti-harassment order and, as a result, Kim murdered Roznowski.   After a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict against the City.  On appeal, the City claims that the trial court erred in denying its summary-judgment motion and motion for judgment as a matter of law because under the public-duty doctrine, the City owed Roznowski no duty.    Both the Court of Appeals and the Washington  Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decisions.

ANALYSIS

The Washington Supreme Court rejected the City’s argument that it owed no duty to Roznowski under the public-duty doctrine, which provides that a claimant cannot recover from a governmental entity that owes a duty to the public in general (as opposed to a duty owed to a particular individual).  In rejecting the City’s argument, the Court held that the City owed two different duties to Roznowski – a legal duty to serve the anti-harassment order and a duty to act reasonably in doing so.

The Court reached this decision by turning to a well-recognized exception to the public-duty doctrine: the legislative intent exception.  This exception allows a plaintiff to claim that a governmental entity owes him or her a legal duty where a legislative enactment “evidences a clear legislative intent to identify and protect a particular and circumscribed class of persons.”  In this case, the Court found the necessary legislative intent in Chapter 10.14 RCW.  This statute creates an anti-harassment order to prevent further unwanted contact between a victim and a perpetrator and requires police officers to serve the order.

Additionally, the Court found that the City owed Roznowski a duty to protect her from the criminal activity of a third party – Kim.  While there is generally no duty to prevent third parties from causing criminal harm, the Court, relying on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, recognized that “where the actor’s own affirmative act has created or exposed the other to a recognizably high degree of risk of harm” that actor owes a duty to the victim.

In addition to these substantive holdings, the Court’s opinion addresses two procedural issues.  First, the Court held that a party that objects to a jury instruction does not need to offer a correct alternate instruction in order to preserve an objection for appeal.  Second, the Court’s decision refused to hold that a party must renew its CR 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law after a jury verdict by filing a motion under CR 50(b).  This is major distinction between Washington and federal procedure.

COMMENTARY

While the Court’s opinion centered on the public-duty doctrine and the legislative intent exception, its holdings on the procedural issues may be the most helpful for most practitioners.  Indeed, a lawyer in a Washington state court is not subject to a renewal requirement and does not have to worry about offering correct jury instructions.  It will be important to remember, however, that in federal court the renewal requirement is still required.