Defense Wins!
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Section: Summer 2021

Johnson Graffe Keay Moniz & Wick LLP

On August 4, 2021, Brennen Johnson of Johnson Graffe Keay Moniz & Wick LLP received a CR 12(b)(6) dismissal on a claim brought against a mandatory reporter for informing the Department of Children, Youth & Families (“DCYF”) about suspected abuse of a hospitalized minor patient in Carter v. Multicare Health System, et al., Pierce County Sup. Ct. No. 21-2-05802-9 (2021).

In this matter, the provider reviewed the child’s medical records, as well as concerns raised by other providers, and believed that the child was suffering medical abuse at the hands of her parent. After the provider made a report to DCYF, the department undertook an investigation and the case proceeded to a dependency trial in King County. During the year of investigation and trial, the child was separated from her parent. At trial, the provider who made the report also testified in favor of establishing a dependency. Nonetheless, the judge in that proceeding dismissed the state’s action in favor of the parent. The Judge also found that the reporting provider’s testimony was not credible in the face of opinions offered by the parent’s expert witnesses.

A year after the dependency proceeding was dismissed in the parent’s favor, the family of the patient and parent brought claims against the reporting provider. They specifically alleged that the provider made false or misleading reports to DCYF, and that the provider continued to make those false assertions in testimony during the dependency trial. In response to the complaint, the provider brought a CR 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss based on statutory immunity under RCW 26.44.060(1)(a). Previous court decisions had suggested that this immunity required the mandatory reporter to affirmatively prove that their report and testimony was made in good faith. In making this assumption, those courts had cited a prior case filed in 1987. However, RCW 26.44.060(1) had been amended in 1988 to add specific language that “a person convicted” of making a false report would not benefit from the immunity in RCW 26.44.060(1)(a). Additionally, subsequent amendments to the federal law providing for funding of state child abuse prevention programs, which RCW 26.44 was specifically designed to satisfy, were amended in 2019 to make clear that there must be a legal presumption of good faith on behalf of the mandatory reporter. Based on careful review of the development of state law since that 1987 decision, the Court agreed with our current statutory interpretation that immunity under RCW 26.44.060(1) automatically attaches to every mandatory reporter unless the reporter is criminally convicted of making an intentional false report. From the Court’s order: “Pursuant to RCW 26.44.060(1)(a), [Defendant] is entitled to immunity on Plaintiffs’ claims because she has not been convicted under RCW 26.44.060(4) of making a false report.”

Under this new interpretation of mandatory reporter immunity, absolutely no civil liability can arise from providers making reports to authorities, providing medical evaluations or consultations, or testifying in child dependency proceeding unless the reporter is first convicted of a crime for making an intentionally false report. As a purely legal question subject to judicial notice of a reporter’s public criminal history (or their lack thereof), this is an issue ripe for resolution at the pleading stage under CR 12(b)(6). This is an excellent result for encouraging health care providers and other mandatory reporters to speak up when information suggests abuse, and a victory for the broader policy of protecting children who cannot protect themselves.

Brennen Johnson is an associate attorney at Johnson, Graffe, Keay, Moniz & Wick. His experience covers a broad range of matters including professional and commercial liability, consumer protection law, products liability, municipal liability, class actions, and general personal injury defense. Brennen began his legal career defending Pierce County in civil litigation while working for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office during law school. Prior to joining JGKMW in 2018, Brennen clerked for U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle in the Western District of Washington.

Bennett Bigelow & Leedom P.S.

Rhianna Fronapfel and Mike Madden of Bennett Bigelow & Leedom P.S. recently won a defense verdict.  They represented an emergency room physician in a case in which the plaintiff alleged failure to diagnose testicular torsion resulting in the loss of a testicle.  The plaintiff sought more than $2 million.  They conducted voir dire remotely via Zoom and the remainder of the trial was in person in Snohomish County.   After two weeks of trial, the jury deliberated for just a few hours before returning a unanimous defense verdict.

Lee Smart, P.S., Inc.

Steven G. Wraith, Carinne E. Bannan, and Zabrina B. Delgado of Lee Smart, P.S., Inc. won a defense verdict in Snyder-Stone v. Schwartz Brothers et al. in King County Superior Court before Judge Judith Ramseyer.  Plaintiff sued the owners of a restaurant after she slipped while walking through the restaurant.  The plaintiff argued the activities of the restaurant employees were unreasonably dangerous when the host allegedly abandoned the plaintiff and a server allegedly failed to yield to her.  She claimed she slipped and fell after being forced to take emergency evasive action to avoid a collision but acknowledged that no condition on the floor caused her to fall.  Plaintiff’s counsel requested $2.6 million at trial.  After a three-week Zoom trial, the jury found the restaurant was not negligent.