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Pirtle v. Spokane Public School District No. 81

August 29, 1996


Appeal from SUPERIOR COURT SPOKANE COUNTY. Superior Court No: 94-2-03885-5. Date filed in Superior Court: 2/23/95. Superior Court Judge signing: HAROLD CLARKE.

Author: John A. Schultheis, Concurring: Dennis J. Sweeney, Dissenting: Ray E. Munson

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schultheis

SCHULTHEIS, J. -- We are asked to decide whether a plaintiff's negligence action against a school district is barred by failure to observe the RCW 4.96.020 60-day waiting period following notice of the claim. Aleathia Pirtle's negligence suit against Spokane Public School District No. 81 (District 81) was dismissed on summary judgment and she appeals, contending her failure to observe the 60-day period should not bar her claim. We affirm.

Because this is a review of a summary judgment, we must assume the facts most favorable to Ms. Pirtle, the nonmoving party. Ruff v. County of King, 125 Wash. 2d 697, 703, 887 P.2d 886 (1995).

In February 1983, while Ms. Pirtle was playing in her fourth-grade gym class, another student pushed her into a concrete wall. She sustained a serious skull fracture that resulted in permanent injuries. Ms. Pirtle's parents signed a "Parent's Release and Indemnity Agreement" in October 1983, settling their claims against District 81 for $5,000.

Ms. Pirtle turned 18 on August 9, 1991. At that time, the three-year statute of limitations began to run for any potential negligence action she might bring against District 81 for her injuries. RCW 4.16.080; .190. On July 13, 1994, her attorney served the notice of claim required by RCW 4.96.020(2) on the District 81 management services office. On that same day, District 81 received a letter from Ms. Pirtle's counsel advising it that the summons and complaint would be filed on July 29, 1994 if the matter had not been resolved. District 81's counsel sent a notice of appearance to Ms. Pirtle, received on July 20.

On July 29, Ms. Pirtle filed the summons and complaint and sent copies to the school district's counsel in early August. In August, District 81 indicated it considered the claim settled. Its counsel sent interrogatories to Ms. Pirtle and arranged to meet with her, her counsel, and a "human factors" expert at the site of the accident. In late October 1994, the district wrote and asked for the answers to its interrogatories.

After receiving a November 1994 superior court order threatening to dismiss the case if District 81's answer to the complaint was not filed by November 17, Ms. Pirtle moved for default. The district responded by filing its answer on November 14, asserting for the first time that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations and by Ms. Pirtle's failure to comply with the RCW 4.96.020 requirement of a 60-day waiting period following the notice of claim. District 81 moved for summary judgment the next day. Finding that the RCW 4.96.020 procedural requirements were mandatory, the court granted summary judgment dismissal of Ms. Pirtle's action. This appeal followed.

In review of a summary judgment order, we make the same inquiry as the trial court, examining the record to see if it establishes there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ruff, 125 Wash. 2d at 703. Ms. Pirtle contends the 60-day waiting period of RCW 4.96.020 is a violation of equal protection, is antithetical to the purpose of RCW 4.96 and is merely a procedural step requiring only substantial compliance. She asserts that even if the statute withstands constitutional scrutiny, her failure to observe the waiting period following the notice of claim was not prejudicial to District 81.

The Washington Constitution provides that "the legislature shall direct by law, in what manner, and in what courts, suits may be brought against the state." Const. art. II, § 26. In 1967, RCW 4.96.010 was enacted to abolish the doctrine of sovereign immunity for the political subdivisions of the state. *fn1 Daggs v. City of Seattle, 110 Wash. 2d 49, 52, 750 P.2d 626 (1988). As a condition precedent to maintaining an action against a governmental entity, the statute requires the injured party to comply with statutory claim filing procedures. RCW 4.96.010(1). One such filing procedure controls here:

No action shall be commenced against any local governmental entity for damages arising out of tortious conduct until sixty days have elapsed after the claim has first been presented to and filed with the governing body thereof. The applicable period of limitations within which an action must be commenced shall be tolled during the sixty-day period.

RCW 4.96.020(4). *fn2 A statute's filing requirements must be upheld as long as they do not violate constitutional rights. Coulter v. State, 93 Wash. 2d 205, 207, 608 P.2d 261 (1980).

Generally, "nonclaim" statutes such as RCW 4.96.020 and RCW 4.92.110 *fn3 (actions against the state) are upheld as constitutional if their procedural burdens are reasonable and do not constitute substantial impediments for governmental tort victims. Daggs, 110 Wash. 2d at 53; Hall v. Niemer, 97 Wash. 2d 574, 581, 649 P.2d 98 (1982). Older versions of these statutes were held to be violative of equal protection because they created two classes of tort victims with two classes of tortfeasors: governmental and nongovernmental. *fn4 Petersen v. State, 100 Wash. 2d 421, 446, 671 P.2d 230 (1983); Hall, 97 Wash. 2d at 579-80; Jenkins v. State, 85 Wash. 2d 883, 890-91, 540 P.2d 1363 (1975); Hunter v. North Mason High Sch. & Sch. Dist. 403, 85 Wash. 2d 810, 813, 539 P.2d 845 (1975).

Equal protection guarantees a party will have the same amount of time to bring a tort action against the government as he or she would have to bring an action against a private tortfeasor. Daggs, 110 Wash. 2d at 53. Current versions of the state and local governmental nonclaim statutes impose no claim filing time requirements beyond those already required by applicable statutes of limitations. RCW 4.92.110; 4.96.020; Coulter, 93 Wash. 2d at 207. Although a 60-day waiting period is imposed from the time of the notice of claim to the commencement of the action, the statute of limitations is tolled during that period. RCW 4.92.110; 4.96.020(4). In effect, RCW 4.96.020(4) provides a tort victim an additional 60-day period before the action must be brought. The waiting period is reasonably related to the governmental objective of negotiation and settlement, Daggs, 110 Wash. 2d at 56-57 (interpreting a similar ...

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