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Washington Liable for Negligent Parolee Supervision; Bad Jury Instruction Vacates $33 Million Award

In a 6-3 decision, the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier holdings that the state may be held liable for negligent supervision of offenders. However, the court vacated a $22.4 million verdict resulting from a 2000 jury trial, which had ballooned with interest to $33 million, because the trial court gave a faulty jury instruction. On remand the state settled the case for $6.5 million.

Vernon Stewart was on community supervision for assault and car theft. The 1995 assault was his first adult felony but he had numerous juvenile offenses and a long history of mental illness.

Stewart was assigned Community Corrections Officer (CCO) Catherine Lo. From the beginning, Stewart was completely non-compliant with his supervision obligations. However, Lo wrote him up for only three of an estimated 100 supervision violations. She also failed to obtain, review or notify the courts of Stewarts mental health history.

On May 9, 1997, Stewarts supervision was transferred to a different CCO. Despite knowing Stewart was non-compliant, the new CCO never met with Stewart or obtained his medical records.

On August 8, 1997 Stewart stole a Suburban, drove 70 mph on city streets, ran red lights and ultimately rammed a vehicle driven by Paula Joyce, killing her. Stewart was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident and was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder.

Joyces family brought suit against Stewart and the state Department of Corrections. The trial court rejected the states motion to dismiss, which argued that it owed no duty to Joyce. At trial, Joyces attorney, Jack Connelly, argued that Stewart could have been in jail at the time of the collision if the CCO had done her job. A jury found the state liable and awarded Joyce $22,400,000, which was the largest civil verdict ever levied against the state [PLN, May 2001, p.1]. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed, Joyce v. DOC, 116 Wash.App. 569, 75 P.3d 548 (2003), and the Washington Supreme Court granted review. Joyce v. DOC, 150 Wash.2d 1032, 84 P.3d 1229 (2004)[PLN, June 2004, p.18].

The court rejected the states attempt to drastically narrow [its] duty of reasonable care as a matter of law. It noted that it had answered all of the questions raised by the state about its duty before. See, e.g., Taggart v. State, 118 Wash.2d 195, 822 P.2d 243 (1992). Therefore, the trial court did not err in denying the Departments motion to dismiss as a matter of law.

The Court agreed with the state, however, that the trial court gave an erroneous jury instruction which suggested that a policy directive required CCOs to report all violations. Policy directives do not, however, have the force of law. Therefore, it could be offered only as evidence of the standard of care and not as negligence per se. The state supreme court concluded that reading the instructions as a whole, the state was not meaningfully allowed to argue its theory of the case because the jury misdirected. The courts decision vacates the damage award and remands the case for a new trial. I feel sad for the family because its been eight years since Paula Joyce was killed and theyll have to deal with it for a longer period of time, said Connelly, But Im fully confident that a jury will recognize the failures are so bad in this case ... [and] justice will be done. See: Joyce v. Department of Corrections, 155 Wash.2d 306, 119 P.3d 825 (Wash. 2005).

On December 15, 2005, before a second trial, the state agreed to settle the case for $6.5 million -- the largest wrongful death settlement paid by the state of Washington in a single death case to date. The DOC stated in a press release that the settlement was in the best interests of the state and the Joyce family.

This case put a spotlight on an important area of government. The people of Washington state spend a lot of money for the proper supervision of felons who have been released from prison. The public deserves accountability and they deserve to know if DOC is exercising reasonable care in attempting to do its job. That didnt happen here, said Connelly.

Since 1987, Washington has paid out $445 million for all types of claims. $60 million of that has been paid by the DOC, $50.1 million of which comes from six wrongful death/negligent supervision cases between 1999 and 2003. Alas, many have failed to conclude that the DOC is no better at supervising mentally ill parolees than it is rehabilitating prisoners, providing medical care to them, etc.

Additional Sources: The Seattle Times, The News Tribune

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