Washington Supreme Court

Last week, the State Supreme Court affirmed a $12.75 million verdict (including $2,422,006 for future care and $10 million in noneconomic damages) against the City of Seattle in favor of former Seattle firefighter, Mark Jones, who was injured when he fell 15 feet down the “pole hole” in a fire station at 3 a.m. on December 23, 2000.  The case captured media attention when the press reported that post-trial surveillance videos showed Jones engaging in physical activities (e.g., playing horseshoes) the City alleged were inconsistent with his testimony at trial.   The trial court refused to grant a new trial.  The Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion.  The City petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review based on the surveillance video and the new evidence that Jones was an alcoholic and that his drinking interfered with his recovery.
Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Affirms Firefighter’s $12.75 Million Verdict Against City of Seattle

Donatelli v. D.R. Strong Consulting Engineers, Inc. [Wash. Sup. Ct. No. 86590-6]

A five justice majority in this case continued to develop the “independent duty doctrine” in Washington. That doctrine has superseded the “economic loss rule,” which previously limited recovery of economic damages to contract claims and recovery of non-economic damages to tort claims. According to the majority opinion, described in greater length below, a contracting party can have a duty in tort to another contracting party if and only if the duty is independent of the agreement. If the contract is unclear, then it must be interpreted by a trier of fact before dismissal based on the independent duty doctrine is proper. As explained by the four-justice dissent, this analysis is unnecessary to the independent duty doctrine, cannot be harmonized with the parties’ agreement, and is not supported by settled principles of contract law. Consistent with those legal principles, the dissent would limit the plaintiff to contract damages where, as here, the parties’ agreement encompasses the risk of harm that is claimed.
Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Breaks New Ground with Independent Duty Doctrine

At its October 1, 2013 conference, the Washington Supreme granted review to four cases. We provide a summary of the issues presented in each case below.

State v. Owens
Supreme Court No. 88905-8
Court of Appeals No. 67867–1–I
PFR & Answer


Whether the Court of Appeals properly reversed a conviction for First Degree

At issue in State v. Dye (PDF) was whether a criminal defendant is denied a fair trial by allowing a developmentally disabled victim to testify with the assistance of a comfort dog.  Such trial management decisions are reviewed for abuse of discretion.  Based on the evidence presented to the trial court at a hearing on the special dispensation request, the Washington Supreme Court concluded, there was no abuse of discretion.
Continue Reading Anxious Trial Witness Permitted to Testify in Presence of Comfort Dog

In re Cross [Wash. Sup. Ct. No. 79761-7]

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously held in this opinion that a capital sentence can be predicated on an Alford plea.  The court explained that the “advantage” of entering an Alford plea in a capital case is to preserve the ability to argue in the penalty phase that the defendant’s actions were not premeditated.  But if entering an Alford plea does not allow a criminal defendant to avoid the death penalty, this so-called “advantage” hardly seems worthwhile.  Assuming defense attorneys agree with this assessment, Alford pleas may be both inadvisable and obsolete in capital cases.

Dayva Cross pleaded guilty to killing his wife and two of her daughters in 2001.  When Cross pled guilty, he did so by way of an Alford plea.  In such a plea, the accused technically does not acknowledge guilt but concedes that there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction.  A trial court judge can accept an Alford plea only if it is made voluntarily, competently, and with an understanding of the charge and the consequences of the plea and if the judge is satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea.

Critical to the Supreme Court’s analysis here, the trial court judge and the prosecutor painstakingly walked Cross through the elements of the crimes of which he was charged, his potential defenses, the rights he was relinquishing, and the punishment he faced.  The trial transcript showed that there was substantial evidence from which a jury could find premeditation and a common scheme and design.  The decision to plead guilty was tactical:  it preserved Cross’s ability to challenge these elements in the penalty phase.
Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Holds Alford Plea Will Support a Death Penalty Verdict

In the Matter of the Personal Restraint of Benjamin B. Brockie, No. 86241-9 (Sept. 26, 2013) (en banc)

Benjamin Brockie was charged by information for, among other things, first degree robbery.  Brockie’s charging information indicated that “in the commission of an immediate flight therefrom, the defendant displayed what appeared to be a firearm or other deadly weapon.”  (emphasis added).  Critically, the charging information did not provide for the alternative means of committing first degree robbery–being armed with a deadly weapon.  The jury instructions, however, did include this alternative charge.  After Brockie’s trial, a jury convicted Brockie of, among other things two counts of first degree robbery.  In response to these convictions and his subsequent sentencing, Brockie filed a pro se motion to vacate his judgment and sentence.  Brockie’s motion argued that his conviction should be vacated because the jury was improperly instructed on the alternative means of committing first degree robbery, which was not contained in the charging information.  The superior court where Brockie filed his motion considered it a personal restraint petition–a form of collateral attack–and transferred the motion to the Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals then transferred the motion to the Washington Supreme Court.
Continue Reading No Prejudice Where Jury Received Charging Instructions Not Included in Original Charging Information

Authored by Marcus Skeem and Hunter Ferguson of Stoel Rives LLP

In Skagit County Pub. Hosp. Dist. No. 304 v. Skagit County Pub. Hosp. Dist. No. 1, the Washington Supreme Court addressed whether a rural Public Hospital District (PHD) may provide healthcare services within the boundaries of another rural PHD without the second district’s