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Washington Supreme Court: Jail Not Responsible for Crimes Committed by Ex-Prisoner

On September 22, 2016, a split Washington Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling and affirmed the trial court's dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the families and victims of a shooting instigated by a former jail prisoner. The lawsuit had alleged that the jail negligently failed to provide necessary mental health care to a man while he was incarcerated and that as a result the man had a psychotic episode upon his release and shot and killed six people and injured several others.

For seven weeks in 2008, Isaac Zamora was locked up in the Skagit County, Washington jail for several nonviolent crimes. Zamora then spent another two months in the Okanogan County jail, where he served out the remainder of his Skagit County sentence. One month after his release from jail, on September 2, 2008, Zamora went on a shooting spree in Skagit County, where he killed six people.

The families of the deceased then sued Skagit County, alleging that jail officials failed to "exercise ordinary and reasonable care" while Zamora was incarcerated by failing to evaluate and treat Zamora's mental illness. The plaintiffs' claims against other institutions were either settled out of court or dismissed on summary judgment.

In essence, the plaintiff's argued that Skagit County was on notice that Zamora was in need of mental health services, and that if Zamora had been properly evaluated and treated he might not have had the "psychotic episode" that led to the September shooting.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Skagit County on the issues of duty of care and proximate cause. The trial court found that the jail's "duty of care" did not extend past the time Zamora was lawfully released, and that there was no evidence that Skagit County's alleged negligence was the proximate cause of Zamora's crimes.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that genuine issues of material facts existed as to whether the county had a legal duty to the victims and whether a breach of that duty caused harm. The Washington Supreme Court accepted review, and reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court.

"Jails have a responsibility to control violent inmates while they are incarcerated, but they do not have a general duty to prevent such inmates from committing crimes after they have been lawfully released from incarceration," the high court ruled.

The court found that because the crimes Zamora committed after his lawful release "were not a foreseeable consequence of any failure to control" him during his incarceration, Skagit County owed no duty of care to control Zamora. Because the court found that Skagit County owed no duty to plaintiffs, they declined to reach the issue of whether Zamora's actions were the proximate cause of Skagit County's alleged breach. The decision was 5-4. See Binschus, et al., v. State of Washington, et al., No. 91644-6 (S. Ct. WA), September 22, 2016.

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Related legal case

Binschus, et al., v. State of Washington, et al