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Washington Appeals Court Reverses the Dismissal of a Slip-and-Fall Negligence Action; State Responsi

Washington Appeals Court Reverses the Dismissal of a Slip-and-Fall Negligence Action; State Responsible for Negligence of Prisoner Laborers

In an unpublished opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals held that a trial court erred in dismissing a pro se prisoners negligence action against the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) in a slip-and-fall case.

Dick Baker was a prisoner at McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1997. On July 17, 1997, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m., Baker went to the unit bathroom. As he stepped along the railing... he slipped and fell..., hitting the back of his head. He blacked out momentarily and then heard the guard calling out to ask if he was okay. Baker replied that he was, and continued to the bathroom.

Back in his cell, Baker discovered that the back of his head was covered with a wet slimy substance that he identified as cement sealer.

Apparently, prison porters place cement sealer on the floor and later buff the floor after the sealer is dry. This is done during the graveyard shift,... The usual procedure is to place cones and tape around areas that have been mopped or sealed to alert prisoners that the area is not safe. On this occasion, Baker did not see either cones or tape present.

The following morning, Baker went to the prison infirmary, told them he had fallen onto the back of his head and neck. Two weeks later, Baker returned to the infirmary, complaining of headaches, a sore neck and blurred vision following periods of reading. The physicians assistant on-duty diagnosed a concussive headache localized in the back of the head.

Baker brought suit against DOC in state court for injuries suffered as a result of the fall. Baker was unable to retain counsel and represented himself during the ensuing jury trial.

[A]t the close of Bakers case, DOC moved to dismiss..., arguing that DOC had only a duty of ordinary care toward Baker and that Baker had failed to prove a breach of that duty. The trial judge denied the motion.

DOC then presented its case, asserting that the fall never happened. This was based largely upon the testimony of Jimmy Carrett who testified that he was the guard on Bakers unit and maintained the log book for the unit. If Baker had fallen, he would have noted the fall in his log book, but there was no such notation...On cross examination, Baker pointed out that he had not been in the unit that Carrett said he guarded. Carrett and Lieutenant Terry Wetland also denied that cement sealer was used on floors in 1997. It had been used earlier but its use was discontinued because it was too slippery.

After DOC rested, it renewed its motion to dismiss. The court granted the motion, ruling that Baker had failed to prove DOCs standard of care, had thus failed to establish a breach of duty, and had failed to provide any evidence of any proximate cause between a head injury,... and the Department Of Corrections. The jury was dismissed without deliberating upon the case.

At a subsequent hearing, DOC acknowledged that the wrong logbook had been introduced into evidence, the correct logbook was found and contained an entry stating that inmate Baker exited the room and slipped on wet sealer. Baker disagreed arguing that the logbook demonstrated that false evidence had been presented at trial as well as perjured testimony, and as such were grounds for a mistrial.

The trial court expressed concern that the new evidence countered so much of the States case. The court decided to sign the order to dismiss, but she dismissed without prejudice. Baker inquired what dismissal without prejudice meant. The trial judge explained that he could continue with the case and that the ruling was in Bakers favor.

The Court of Appeals reversed explaining that [t]he correct logbook confirmed Bakers testimony and thus negated a great deal of DOCs evidence at trial. The court observed that while a dismissal without prejudice ordinarily gives the plaintiff another day in court it would not do so for Baker because the statute of limitations had expired and Baker was precluded from refiling [the] case. Therefore, the court held that the trial court erred in dismissing the case without prejudice and in failing to grant Bakers request for a mistrial, the only remedy capable of bringing the proper evidence before a jury.

Turning to the merits of Bakers negligence claim, the court discussed DOCs duty of care, explaining that where the State draws a financial advantage from prison laborers, the State is legally responsible for reasonably foreseeable negligence by such labors.

The court then found that the conflicting testimony created a question of fact for the jury with respect to whether there was a breach of duty by DOC. Rejecting DOCs argument that Baker cannot recover without expert medical testimony to establish proximate cause the court concluded that while Baker needed expert medical testimony to establish that he suffered long-term medical repercussions as a result of the fall[] his own testimony about his pain and headaches in the days following his faults are matters clearly within the experience of laypersons. Thus, his testimony on short-term injury was sufficient to go to the jury. See: Baker v. State of Washington, 2004 Wash. App. LEXIS 2312

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Related legal case

Baker v. State of Washington