From the desk of Thomas McCurdy:
Washington provides a complete defense for personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits when the person injured (or killed) was committing a felony at the time of injury. But to be provided this defense, must the injured person be convicted of, or at least admit to, committing the felony? And if not, what exactly does the defendant have to show to be afforded this defense?
The Washington Court of Appeals found that to be provided a complete defense under Washington’s felony bar statute, a conviction or admission of felonious conduct is not necessary. Rather, the defendant must only show that the injured or deceased person was engaged in the commission of a felony. However, in order to show this, the defendant must establish that the injured or deceased person engaged in all of the required elements of the accused felony, including the element of intent.
Davis v. King County, No. 79696-8-I, 2021 Wash. App. LEXIS 190 (Feb. 1, 2021)
This case arose out of a tense situation between Rose Davis (“Davis”) and officers from the King County Sherriff’s Office. Back in October 2016, Davis’s boyfriend, T.J. Molina (“Molina”) grew concerned about Davis’s mental state after receiving texts from her in which she threatened suicide. Molina was particularly concerned because Davis had a history of mental illness and had attempted suicide before. As a result of this, Molina notified Deputy Pritchett with the King County Sherriff’s Office about his concerns. A while later, Deputy Pritchett and Deputy Lewis made their way to Davis’s residence and entered together. Once inside, the deputies found Davis lying on a bed covered by a blanket. They requested that Davis show her hands. When she didn’t, Deputy Lewis pointed his gun at Davis, while Deputy Pritchett pulled the blanket off. This revealed a gun resting on Davis’s lap. Although both deputies agreed that a gun was present, they had conflicting stories about whether Davis’s hands were on the gun at this time. Both deputies then also noticed a magazine in Davis’s left hand, but neither could tell if the gun was loaded. Deputy Lewis ordered Davis to drop the gun, while Deputy Pritchett backed away towards the door. At this time, Davis raised the gun and allegedly pointed it at both deputies. In response, both deputies fired their weapons, with three bullets hitting Davis. Davis then slumped over, fell off the bed, and uttered “it’s not even loaded.” After Davis was shot, the deputies secured the scene by recovering the gun. However, there were conflicting stories about where the gun was recovered from, either Davis’s hand or the bed. During the recovery of the gun, it was discovered that it was not loaded. Sadly, Davis passed away from her injuries.
A little over a year after Davis’s death, her estate (“plaintiff”) filed a wrongful death suit against King County, the individual deputies, and the former and current sheriffs (collectively “defendants”). The claim alleged negligence, battery, negligent use of excessive force, and outrage. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that because Davis was engaged in a felony when she was killed, the claims were barred by Washington’s felony bar statute, RCW 4.24.420. In response, the plaintiff argued that the felony bar statute requires a felony conviction or admission of felonious conduct by the injured or deceased individual, which did not occur here. In the alternative, the estate argued that Davis was accused of felonious assault, which requires specific intent to cause bodily injury, which she did not have at the time. Unpersuaded by the plaintiff’s arguments, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.
Washington’s felony bar statute, RCW 4.24.420, provides a “complete defense to any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death” if “the person injured or killed was engaged in the commission of a felony at the time” of the injury or death “and the felony was a proximate cause of the injury or death.” The statute applies even if the defendant was negligent or unreasonable. In this opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals examined the plain meaning of this statute and held that the plaintiff’s interpretation that the statute requires a felony conviction or admission was incorrect. Rather, it was clear from the language of the statute, that all that is required to be provided a complete defense under this statute is a showing that the person “was engaged in the commission of a felony.” Even further, the plaintiff’s interpretation did not make logical sense because a deceased person would essentially never be able to be convicted or admit to a felony because they are deceased.
The court also addressed plaintiff’s argument that Davis did not have the intent to commit the felony she was accused of. In this case, in order for the defendants to prevail under the felony bar statute, they needed to show that (1) Davis was engaged in the commission of a felony when she died and (2) the felony was the proximate cause of her death. Here, the defendants alleged that Davis was engaged in the felony of either second or third degree assault. The relevant provisions of Washington’s criminal code provide that second or third degree assault occurs when an individual “[a]ssaults another with a deadly weapon” or “[a]ssaults a law enforcement officer.” A definition of the word “assault” is not present in the criminal code, so the court looked to the state’s three common law definitions of assault. After examining these definitions, the court found that a required element for assault in this situation is the “specific intent to cause bodily harm or to create apprehension [of] bodily harm.” For criminal conduct, “intent” requires more than just knowledge that a certain result will occur, rather that result must be the person’s objective or purpose. Intent can be inferred from the circumstances surrounding the person’s conduct and is normally a question for the jury.
Although the Washington Court of Appeals held that plaintiff’s interpretation of the felony bar statute to require a conviction or admission of felonious conduct was incorrect, the court did agree with the plaintiff’s argument about intent. In analyzing if Davis had the intent required to commit assault, the Washington Court of Appeals addressed the conflicting accounts surrounding her death. The court highlighted the fact that the deputies had inconsistent stories about the gun’s location throughout the incident. Additionally, Davis’s statement “it’s not even loaded” could be inferred to mean that she had no intent to assault or harm the officers. These facts combined with Davis’s history of mental illness and suicide attempts led the Washington Court of Appeals to hold that the trial court’s grant of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was improper. Rather the court held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Davis had the requisite intent to commit assault. Therefore, the wrongful death suit was not barred by the felony bar statute, at least not at this point in the proceedings. Instead, the court held that factfinder will have to determine if Davis had the intent required to commit assault in order for the defendants to be provided a complete defense under this statute.
The Big Picture:
In this opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals made clear that a defendant can be afforded a complete defense under the felony bar statute, RCW 4.24.420, when the injured or deceased person was engaged in the commission of a felony, no conviction or admission necessary. However, in order to be provided this defense, the defendant must prove all of the elements of the alleged felony. If the felony requires specific intent, the defendant must be able to establish that intent, which may be particularly difficult in wrongful death lawsuits. Additionally, this opinion made clear that the issue of whether the requisite intent existed or not will likely be an issue resolved by the jury and not by the judge on a pre-trial motion.
Ultimately, the trial court’s grant of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.