Wrongful Death Claim Accrued Upon Murderer’s Conviction
From the Desk of Kyle D. Riley: Claims that are subject to a discovery rule do not accrue until the plaintiff knows or should have known of the facts that make up the essential elements of the claim. In some wrongful death claims arising out of murder, the identity of the murderer may be one of those facts because it provides the basis of a negligent supervision claim against the state. But when should a plaintiff know the identity of the murderer to determine whether there is a claim? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: In this wrongful death claim arising out of the negligent supervision of a man who allegedly violated his probation prior to committing murder, the Washington Court of Appeals held that it was not until the man was convicted of murder that the plaintiffs should have known his identity. This ruling clarifies a key element of wrongful death claims based on negligent supervision.
Brown v. State of Washington, Department of Corrections, No. 73206-4-I, Washington Court of Appeals, Division 1 (December 27, 2016) (unpublished)
Alajawan Brown (“Alajawan”), a twelve-year old boy, was shot and killed on April 29, 2010, and on June 17, 2010, Washington State filed criminal charges against Curtis Walker (“Walker”). Walker pleaded not guilty and asserted he did not shoot Alajawan. Following a three-week trial beginning in January 2012, Walker was convicted of murder in the first degree and unlawful possession of a weapon.
On November 24, 2014, Alajawan’s parents, Anyanna Brown and Louis Brown (“Browns”), filed a wrongful death action against the State of Washington Department of Corrections (“DOC”) alleging DOC negligently supervised Walker. The lawsuit alleged that had the DOC done its job properly, Walker would have been in prison on April 29, 2010, and he would not have been able to shoot the Browns’ son. The Browns also alleged that they first learned that Walker had been on probation at the time of their son’s murder and was violating his probation by selling drugs and using firearms prior to the murder at the sentencing hearing on March 22, 2012.
In its answer to the complaint, DOC admitted that on April 17, 2010, a few days before Walker shot Alajawan, it received a complaint that Walker may have physically assaulted his girlfriend and threatened her with a firearm, and that he was selling drugs out of his house. In an affirmative defense, however, DOC asserted that because the lawsuit was filed on November 24, 2014, it was barred by Washington’s three-year statute of limitations. The Browns filed a motion for partial summary judgment dismissal of the affirmative defense, arguing that the statute of limitations was tolled until they had or should have discovered the facts supporting their claim. They argued that the negligent supervision claim did not accrue until they first learned Walker was on probation when he shot Alajawan at the March 2012 sentencing hearing.
DOC filed a cross motion for summary judgment dismissal of the wrongful death lawsuit as barred by the statute of limitation, arguing that the Browns did not exercise due diligence to discover the factual basis for the negligent supervision claim. DOC asserted that the Browns knew the identity of the shooter, and they knew or should have known that Walker was under DOC supervision when the charges were filed on June 17, 2010. In support of its argument, DOC submitted copies of the charging documents and news articles covering the arrest, which detailed Walker’s criminal history and noted that he was on probation. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of DOC, finding that the Browns knew or should have known as early as June 2010 that Walker was on probation at the time of the murder. The Browns appealed.
On appeal, the Browns again argued that the claim against DOC for negligent supervision did not accrue until the sentencing hearing in March 2012, when they learned that Walker was on probation when he shot Alajawan Brown. DOC argued that the cause of action accrued no later than June 17, 2010, when the charges were filed.
The Washington Court of Appeals cut to the heart of the matter, finding that the undisputed facts showed that the Browns did not know or could not reasonably have known of the negligent supervision claim against DOC until February 2012, when the jury convicted Walker. The court acknowledged that Walker was charged with the murder of Alajawan on June 17, 2010, and both news coverage and the charging documents described his lengthy criminal history and that he was under DOC supervision. But the court also pointed out that Walker pleaded not guilty and asserted he did not commit the murder. During the trial, which began in January 2012, Walker again asserted he did not commit the murder, and he and his spouse testified that another man had committed the murder. The jury convicted Walker in February 2012. The court determined that only then did the Browns know the identity of the shooter and the essential elements of their tort claim, including that DOC’s negligent supervision of Walker was a proximate cause of Alajawan’s death. Accordingly, because the claim did not accrue until Walker’s conviction in February 2012, and the lawsuit was filed in November 2014 and within the statute of limitations, the court reversed the dismissal of the Browns’ lawsuit as barred by the statute of limitations and ordered that the statute of limitations defense be stricken.
NOTE: This opinion has not been published. It is provided to demonstrate how the court approaches the issues involved in the case. It cannot be cited as authority to a court of law.
View full opinion at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/732064.pdf
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