Hart v. Prather, 81041-3-I

CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Writing for the CourtChun, J.
PartiesREBEKAH L. HART, individually, Appellant, v. EMILY PRATHER and "JOHN DOE" PRATHER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; PARKER J. KNAUER, individually; STEVEN KNAUER and PAMILA KNAUER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; BRAYDEN STANTON and "JANE DOE" STANTON, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; TODD EVANS and "JANE DOE" EVANS, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; and ERIC NELSON and "JANE DOE" NELSON, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; DAVID W. BARKER and "JANE DOE" BARKER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof, Respondents, BRITTANY POWELL, individually, Defendant.
Decision Date24 August 2020
Docket Number81041-3-I

REBEKAH L. HART, individually, Appellant,
v.

EMILY PRATHER and "JOHN DOE" PRATHER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; PARKER J. KNAUER, individually; STEVEN KNAUER and PAMILA KNAUER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; BRAYDEN STANTON and "JANE DOE" STANTON, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; TODD EVANS and "JANE DOE" EVANS, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; and ERIC NELSON and "JANE DOE" NELSON, individually and the marital community comprised thereof; DAVID W. BARKER and "JANE DOE" BARKER, individually and the marital community comprised thereof, Respondents,

BRITTANY POWELL, individually, Defendant.

No. 81041-3-I

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

August 24, 2020


UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Chun, J.

Rebekah Hart suffered injuries from four car accidents occurring over five years. She sued various persons involved. The matter proceeded to a seven-week jury trial. The trial court dismissed one defendant before sending the case to the jury, which returned a verdict for Hart. Because the jury attributed 20 percent of Hart's damages to the collision involving the dismissed defendant, the court reduced her damage award by that percentage. The court then entered judgment against the defendants severally. Hart appeals and pursues multiple claims. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The First Accident

The first accident occurred on March 1, 2009. Emily Prather was driving the Knauer family's car, with Parker Knauer as a passenger, over a highway overpass in Gig Harbor.[1] While turning left, Prather collided with Hart's vehicle. Hart did not claim any injuries at the scene.

Two days later, a doctor examined Hart for injuries related to the accident. Hart complained of pain in her right knee and upper right arm. She also stated that she experienced chest pain, neck pain, increased sleepiness, and headaches, as well as pain in her left shoulder and jaw.

Several months later, Hart returned for a follow-up examination. She complained of continuing headaches that appeared to occur when the doctor applied pressure to her upper neck. The doctor recommended that she see a chiropractor who specialized in the upper cervical area. Hart began seeing such a specialist in September 2009.

B. The Second Accident and this Lawsuit

Nearly ten months after the first accident, a single-car collision involving Hart occurred on December 22, 2009. Hart attended high school then with Alan Sluka and Brayden Stanton. That night, Hart, Stanton, and other high school friends went to Sluka's home where a confrontation erupted over a prank. Hart, Stanton, and their friends then went to a nearby restaurant. Sluka pursued them. When Sluka showed up, Stanton left and drove off in a truck[2] with Hart in the backseat to avoid any further conflict. Sluka followed.

Eric Nelson, Sluka's stepfather, left his house in his truck to retrieve Sluka. Nelson spotted Sluka chasing Stanton. After Nelson saw Stanton and Sluka drive through a red light, he sped to catch up to them. Nelson estimated that Stanton and Sluka were driving around 55-60 miles per hour (mph) in a 30-35 mph zone. Nelson decided to intervene by speeding up to 80 mph and passing Sluka so that he could get between Sluka's and Stanton's vehicles. Stanton and Nelson drove through a red light. Nelson then saw that Sluka had stopped at the light, and Nelson turned off the road so that he was no longer following Stanton.

Stanton slowed down to make a turn. He still believed he was being followed. While Stanton made the turn, he lost control of the truck while going about 45 mph. The truck veered across the opposite lane of travel and then off the roadway. The vehicle damaged a number of trees before landing on its side. Stanton lost consciousness and suffered a concussion.

This second accident exacerbated Hart's injuries and "produced increased headaches."

In November 2012, almost two years later, Hart filed this lawsuit.

C. The Third Accident

The third accident occurred on April 7, 2013, roughly five months after Hart filed the complaint. Coincidentally, the incident took place at the same intersection where the first accident involving Prather occurred. The other driver involved in the collision was David Barker. The accident did not cause any new injuries to Hart but exacerbated her previous injuries.

D. The Fourth Accident

The fourth and final accident occurred about a year later on March 22, 2014. Hart was in the passenger seat of the vehicle of her friend, Brittany Powell. Powell believes that while she was driving on an I-5 south onramp in Seattle, one or more of the tires on her vehicle "blew." Powell began to lose control of the car and it slid across the other lanes and onto the opposite side of the highway; the car faced oncoming traffic. Another vehicle then "side swiped" the front of the car with "a little bit more" damage on the passenger side. Hart testified that the collision did not cause her to suffer any new injuries, but caused her previous injuries to "flare[] up" for two or three days.

E. Further Litigation, Trial & Verdict

Hart amended her complaint to add Barker and Powell as defendants. The court granted Powell's motion to dismiss prior to sending the case to the jury.

The court determined that Hart was fault-free with regard to the second, third, and fourth accidents, and instructed the jury as such.

After seven weeks of trial, the jury awarded Hart:

• $17, 000 in past economic and non-economic damages for the period of March 1, 2009 to December 22, 2009
• $59, 000 in past economic and non-economic damages for the period of December 22, 2009 to April 7, 2013
• $32, 000 in past economic and non-economic damages for the period of April 7, 2013 to March 22, 2014; and
• $325, 000 in past economic and non-economic and future economic and non-economic damages for the period of March 22, 2014 to the present

The jury found that defendants Prather, Nelson, Stanton, and Barker acted negligently. But it determined that Nelson's negligence was not a proximate cause of Hart's injuries. The jury also determined that Hart's injuries were divisible. It apportioned responsibility for Hart's injuries as follows:

To the collision of March 1, 2009: 4 %
To Defendant Stanton: 70%
To Defendant Nelson: 0 %
To Defendant Barker: 6 %
To the collision of March 22, 2014: 20 %.

The court reduced the judgment by 20 percent to account for the damages attributed to the March 22, 2014 accident, as to which it had dismissed the involved defendant, Powell. The court then entered judgments holding the defendants severally liable only. Hart appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Joint and Several Liability

Hart argues that the trial court erred by not rendering the defendants jointly and severally liable for her damages under RCW 4.22.070(1)(b). While defendants Stanton and Evans[3] agree with Hart, defendants Barker, Prather, and Knauer assert that joint and several liability under the statute does not apply because Hart's injuries were divisible. We determine the court did not err.

We review de novo issues of statutory interpretation. Afoa v. Port of Seattle, 191 Wn.2d 110, 119, 421 P.3d 903 (2018). We "look first to the plain meaning of the statutory language, and . . . interpret a statute to give effect to all language, so as to render no portion meaningless or superfluous." Benson v. State, 4 Wn.App. 2d 21, 26, 419 P.3d 484 (2018). Our fundamental objective when construing a statute is to determine and carry out the legislature's intent. King County v. King County Water Dist. No. 20, 194 Wn.2d 830, 853, 453 P.3d 681 (2019).

Statutes that can be reasonably interpreted in two or more ways are ambiguous. Payseno v. Kitsap County, 186 Wn.App. 465, 469, 346 P.3d 784 (2015). When statutes are ambiguous, it is appropriate for courts "to resort to aids to construction, including legislative history." King County, 194 Wn.2d at 853. Ultimately, we must harmonize related statutory provisions to carry out a consistent scheme that maintains the statute's integrity. King County, 194 Wn.2d at 853.

Through the 1986 tort reform act, the legislature abrogated the common law rule of joint and several liability, leaving several liability as the default. Afoa, 191 Wn.2d at 119. Still, a statutory exception applies when the plaintiff was not at fault:[4]

(1) . . . The liability of each defendant shall be several only and not be joint except:
(b) If the trier of fact determines that the claimant or party suffering bodily injury or incurring property damages was not at fault, the defendants against whom judgment is entered shall be jointly and severally liable for the sum of their proportionate shares of the claimants [claimant's] total damages.

RCW 4.22.070(1)(b) (alteration in original).

In Kottler v. State, 136 Wn.2d 437, 963 P.2d 834 (1998), our Supreme Court analyzed when joint and several liability applies under RCW 4.22.070. Kottler identifies three scenarios where joint liability applies: (1) where negligent parties acted in concert or a master/servant or principal/agent relationship existed, (2) cases involving hazardous waste, tortious interference with business, and unmarked fungible goods, and (3) where plaintiff is fault-free and the court entered judgment against two or more defendants, Id., at 446-47. The court stated that when a plaintiff is fault-free, only a modified form of joint and several liability applies, Id. at 447. Under this modified approach, defendants "will be jointly and severally liable only for the sum of their proportionate liability." Id. at 446; see also RCW 4.22.070(1)(b) ("defendants against whom judgment is entered shall be jointly and severally liable for the sum of their proportionate shares of the claimants [claimant's] total damages")...

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