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“Discovery Rule” Extends Washington’s Statute Of Limitations

Brown v. State of Washington, Department of Corrections, 197 Wn. App. 1020, — P.3d — (2017)

Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals just published an opinion holding the “discovery rule” extends the three-year statute of limitations for civil wrongful death actions.

On April 29, 2010, twelve-year-old Alajawan Brown was shot and killed by a member of the “Bloods” gang for wearing a blue jacket. The State filed criminal charges of first degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm against Curtis John Walker, who was on probation at the time. Walker pled not guilty, denied shooting Brown, and alleged another member of his gang, Rabun, shot and killed Brown. In February 2012, a jury convicted Walker of both charges. On November 24, 2014, Brown’s parents filed a wrongful death action against the State of Washington Department of Corrections alleging the DOC negligently supervised Walker. The Browns alleged to have only learned Walker was on probation at the sentencing hearing that occurred on March 22, 2012. DOC filed a motion to dismiss the action as barred by the statute of limitations, which the trial court granted. The Browns appealed.

DOC argued at the summary judgment hearing and on appeal the Browns knew or should have known that Walker killed their son and was under DOC supervision. The basis for this argument was the fact Walker’s probation status was well-publicized and reported from various news sources. DOC argued that with any amount due diligence, the Browns would have obtained the factual basis for a negligent supervision cause of action.

The Browns argued they became aware of Walker’s probation status at the March 22, 2012 sentencing hearing. They admitted to knowing that Walker was a gang member, a “Blood,” and may have killed their son, but were given only a limited understanding of Walker’s history otherwise.

The Court of Appeals noted generally a three-year statute of limitations controls wrongful death actions. However, it noted the “discovery rule” is an exception to the general rule. “In certain torts, . . . injured parties do not, or cannot, know they have been injured; in these cases, a cause of action accrues at the time the plaintiff knew or should have known all the essential elements of the cause of action.” As such, the Court of Appeals held the identity of the person who killed Alajawan Brown was not known until the jury convicted Walker in February 2012, because Walker denied killing Brown and blamed Rabun. As such, the Browns’ cause of action would not be barred by the statute having been filed in 2014 and would have accrued at the time of Walker’s conviction.

The Court of Appeals ruling may lead to a rise in plaintiffs attempting to defeat statute of limitation defenses by claiming an unknown defendant caused their injuries and only recently became known. This opinion follows the trend of many recent decisions that degrade technical defenses in civil actions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Colin Hutchinson-Flaming is an associate attorney in Tyson & Mendes’ Seattle office. Mr. Hutchinson-Flaming specializes in general liability, employment, and construction litigation. Contact Colin at 206.420.4267 or chutchinson-flaming@tysonmendes.com.