Appeal from Superior Court of Cowlitz County. Docket No: 92-2-00837-9. Date filed: 10/28/94. Judge signing: Hon. Randolph Furman.
Amending on Denial of Reconsideration for Publication February 21, 1997. Rehearing Denied July 8, 1997,
Authored by Karen G. Seinfeld. Concurring: J. Dean Morgan, Elaine M. Houghton.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seinfeld
SEINFELD, C.J. -- Valerie Crisman contends that the trial court erred in relying upon the statute of limitations to dismiss her conversion claim against Robert Crisman and Richard Uhlich. She argues that the statute should not apply because she was unable to discover the factual basis for her allegations until eight years after the alleged tortious conduct. We agree and reverse.
Valerie Crisman opened a jewelry store in Long Beach, Washington, in the mid-1970s. She resided in New York City at that time so hired Robert Crisman (Robert), her twin brother, to manage the store. In turn, Robert hired Richard Uhlich as an employee and later as a store manager. Robert was also a minority shareholder in the business.
In 1982, Crisman purchased a second jewelry store at a local mall. Before renovating the new store, Robert and Uhlich oversaw a liquidation sale of the newly purchased store's inventory.
In 1985, Robert and Uhlich offered to buy the business from Crisman for $175,000. Crisman counteroffered $400,000. The sale never materialized. Crisman, who had moved back to the Pacific Northwest, assumed hands-on supervision of the business. Shortly thereafter, Robert and Uhlich left the business and opened a competing jewelry store in the same mall.
When Crisman took over in 1985, she found the business in a precarious financial state, which she attributed to Robert and Uhlich's mismanagement.
After viewing the situation, the company's attorney wrote a letter to its shareholders stating that "the corporation may have a negative book value and it is questionable whether or not the corporation has any actual market value." Crisman also discovered that Robert had taken financial records, display cases, customer lists, vendor lists, a company VISA card, and jewelry repair equipment from her store. Robert apparently returned these items after the company attorney sent him a letter threatening legal action. Ultimately, Crisman was able to save the business by closing one of the stores and lending the business large sums of money.
In 1990, Robert's estranged wife, Cathy Crisman, told Crisman that she had seen Robert burning receipt books sometime in 1982 and in 1985 and that he had stored in his closet at home a bag of gems that he claimed constituted his share of Crisman's business. In response, Crisman had a friend audit the business records from the 1982 liquidation sale. The audit uncovered a $100,000 shortage.
In 1992, Crisman filed this action. To overcome the three-year statute of limitations for conversion, she pleaded the discovery rule, claiming that she first learned the factual basis of her cause of action in 1990 when Cathy told her about the gems and the destruction of the receipts. The trial court submitted the question of when Crisman knew or should have known the facts underlying her claim to the jury; the jury found that Crisman's claim was timely. But the trial court then granted the defense motion for judgment as a matter of law, vacated the verdict, and denied Crisman's motion for reconsideration.
Crisman contends that the trial court erred when it ruled, as a matter of law, that the discovery rule was inapplicable to the facts and, therefore, that the statutory period had expired before she filed her complaint. She ...