Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA Supreme Court: Department Rules No Liability Shield In Car-Accident Damage Suit By Spouse Of State Worker

by January 26th, 2011

SUMMARY: The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that the State of Washington may not escape liability for a negligence claim stemming from injuries caused to a spouse riding as an unauthorized passenger, when a state vehicle driven on state business by her husband, a Department of Ecology intern, went out of control and overturned several times on State Route 18. A trial court had rejected the spouse’s claim because her husband was breaking department rules by taking her on the work trip in the state vehicle when she was not on state business. But an appeals court reversed the trial court, stressing that the state bore “vicarious liability” for its employee regardless, because he was pursuing work duties at the time of the accident. The Supreme Court affirmed that, and sent the case back to the trial court with an order to enter a summary judgement in favor of the plaintiff and determine damages.

BACKGROUND: Mohammad Shahidur Rahman was an intern with the Washington State Department of Ecology in the summer of 2005. He worked in the dam safety office and accompanied senior engineers on inspections and helped write reports. On 7/25/05 he was driving from Olympia to Spokane in a state vehicle for work purposes but, against departmental policy, had brought along his wife Rizwana as a passenger. On a curve at Tiger Mountain Summit on State Route 18 he lost control of the vehicle, which left the road and overturned several times. His wife was seriously injured and subsequently filed suit against her husband and the state, later narrowing her claim to against the state alone.

KEY LINK: Washington State Supreme Court Ruling in Rizwana Rahman vs. State of Washington, 1/20/11

KEY FINDINGS:

  • The Supreme Court upholds an appeals court ruling that the State of Washington is responsible for injuries to an unauthorized passenger riding in a state vehicle. The appeals court had overturned an earlier trial court decision that the state was not liable for the injuries because the driver, a state employee, had broken a departmental rule barring passengers not engaged in state business.
  • The Supreme Court confirmed the appeals court finding that the state is in this case subject to the doctrine of “vicarious liability” or “respondeat superior,” translated as “let the master answer.” The court wrote that legal framework does require that the employee’s acts in question must be to further work duties, but that failing to follow the particular work rule in question while so engaged does not provide an escape clause from employer responsibility.
  • “The trip and the route taken were dictated by official state business…..(and)….”there is no allegation that (Mr. Rahman’s) unauthorized act…was in any way a cause of the accident that injured (Mrs. Rahman).”
  • The Supreme Court remanded, or sent back, the case to the trial court, with instructions to enter a partial summary judgement in favor of the plaintiff, Rizwana Rahman, and conduct further proceedings to determine the settlement amount.

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