Joyce: An Impossible Burden?

150 150 Karr Tuttle Campbell

By Gene Barton

On August 8, 1997, Paula Joyce was killed in a traffic accident in Tacoma. She died when her small pickup truck was rammed by a  stolen Chevrolet Suburban that had been careening along city streets at  up to 70 miles an hour. A toxicology report showed that the auto thief, Vernon Valdez Stewart, was under the influence of marijuana.

At the time, Stewart was on probation for a 1995 felony assault and a  1996 conviction for possession of stolen property. As a result, he was  under the supervision of a community corrections officer from the State  Department of Corrections (DOC). Joyce’s husband sued the State, alleging that DOC had negligently supervised Stewart. A jury returned a verdict in Joyce’s favor and  awarded damages.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.1 On September 15, in a decision that made headlines across the state, a divided   Washington Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part,   remanding for a new trial.2 Although the court reversed and remanded due to an erroneous and prejudicial jury instruction, the crux of its  opinion lies in affirming DOC’s duty to supervise and monitor those charged to its care.

The court’s opinion is founded on three cases: Taggart v. State,3    Hertog v. City of Seattle4 and Bishop v. Miche.5 An egregious fact  pattern demonstrating a gross supervisory system failure also did not  help the State’s legal arguments, which were grounded on assertions    that it owed no duty to Mrs. Joyce and that neither legal causation nor cause in fact had been established as a matter of law.

The court held that the State’s assertion that “it simply owed no duty to Paula Joyce . . . confuses the existence of a duty with the scope of the  duty. . . . [T]he State still has a duty to use reasonable care once it takes  charge of an offender.” Thus, with respect to the State’s duty, the  question came down to “whether the injury was reasonably  foreseeable,” the court stated.6 It held that there was ample evidence to put the question to the jury: “Under the facts of this case, a jury could conclude that this duty was breached by the State’s failure to report  egregious violations of the conditions of release to the court so that the  trial judge could take action appropriate to the offender’s conduct.”

Nevertheless, the court explored the basic existence of a duty because the State sought “to drastically narrow the State’s duty of reasonable  care as a matter of law.”  Primarily, the court dismissed the notion “that there is something so fundamentally different between a community  corrections officer and a probation officer that our prior holdings do not apply.” The court noted that it had been down this road before, principally in Taggart, where “[w]e rejected the State’s legal cause argument and concluded that ‘parole officers have a duty to protect  others from reasonably foreseeable dangers engendered by parolees’  dangerous propensities.’”7

The court held:

We see no reason to categorically distinguish community  corrections officers from others who actively supervise offenders.8 In each, the  government has assumed the duty of supervising an  offender’s conduct. In each, the government has the ability to take steps to ensure, as a condition of release, that the offender complies with the conditions of   release. In each, the government  has the duty of reasonable care in executing its duties.

In attempting to have the court overrule Taggart in Hertog and Bishop, the court noted, state agencies had argued that “as a matter of law,  there is no causal link between their failure to use  reasonable care to  monitor and supervise offenders, and the foreseeable injuries caused  by offenders.” In Hertog, “the city argued that . . . parole officers do not have any real control over the day to day lives of parolees” and that “a failure to supervise could not be the proximate  cause of injuries intentionally inflicted by supervised parolees.” The  court noted:

We held that “[w]here a special relation exists based upon taking charge of [an offender], the ability and duty to control [the offender] indicate that the defendant’s actions in failing to meet that duty are not too remote to impose liability.”9

The bottom line, the court stated, is “whether the State had a take charge relationship with the offender, and whether the State knew or  should have known of the offender’s dangerous propensities.”10 Under such circumstances:

[O]nce the relationship is created, it is the relationship itself which ultimately imposes the duty upon the government, and “the failure to  adequately monitor and report violations, thus failure to adequately  supervise the probationer” may result in liability.11

In Stewart’s case, according to the court, the DOC “maintained a definite, established, and continuing relationship by assigning a   community corrections officer to monitor and notify the judge if Stewart failed to substantially comply with the court’s conditions of release. A duty existed.”

The dissent chastised the majority for using “tragic facts” to “establish[ ] a new rule of law.” Justice Fairhurst wrote: “The . . . duty to supervise . . .  Stewart for assault and possession of stolen property did not extend  to preventing the automobile accident that killed Paula Joyce. . . . It is nonsensical to hold that DOC has a duty to control that which it does not have the authority to control.”

The result of the majority’s decision, in effect, Justice Fairhurst wrote, is to impose an onerous burden on the DOC. “The majority’s imposition of  a duty here will force DOC to seek arrest for any minor violation to  prevent future liability.” She concluded:

DOC cannot be expected to  foresee behavior unrelated to the substantive or crime-related  conditions under which they are monitoring supervisees. . . . If we did not limit DOC’s foreseeability to behavior associated with crime related supervision conditions, we would make DOC an insurer for any new crime committed by a  supervisee that was similar to a behavior or lack  of judgment that person demonstrated in the past, but which the courts  did not see fit to include in the supervision conditions. The majority asks  too much of DOC—it cannot be an insurer of all crimes.

Gene Barton is the editor of the Bar Bulletin. He is a commercial litigator and appellate attorney with Karr Tuttle Campbell in Seattle. He may be reached at 206-224-8030 or moc.elttutrraknull@notrabg.

1 116 Wn. App. 569, 75 P.3d 548 (2003).
2 Joyce v. State of Washington, Dep’t of Corrections, No. 74176-0 (Sept. 15, 2005). Justices Fairhurst, Bridge and Sanders dissented.
3 118 Wn.2d 195, 822 P.2d 243 (1992) (holding that parole officers have a duty to supervise parolees to prevent foreseeable injury to other persons). Taggart sued the state after he was assaulted by a parolee who had last been incarcerated for auto theft.
4 138 Wn.2d 265, 979 P.2d 400 (1999) (recognizing a similar duty of city probation officers and county pre-trial release counselors).
5 137 Wn.2d 518, 973 P.2d 465 (1999) (recognizing a duty of county probation officers). In Bishop, an intoxicated probationer with a history of substance abuse caused a motor vehicle accident that killed a child.
6 Citing Taggart, 118 Wn.2d at 217, 226.
7 Quoting id. at 224. The court also noted that it had rejected the  State’s argument in Taggart “that recognizing this duty would require the State to monitor more intensively than the State’s resources allow.”
See id. at 220.
8 Comparing RCW §§ 9.94A.631 and .634, governing community   supervision, with RCW § 72.04A.080, governing parole.
9 Quoting Hertog, 138 Wn.2d at 284.
10 Citing Bishop, 137 Wn.2d at 524, in turn citing Taggart, 118 Wn.2d at 219.
11 Quoting Bishop, 137 Wn.2d at 526