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Ralph v. Dep't of Natural Res.

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

December 31, 2014

William Ralph, Petitioner,
The Department of Natural Resources, Respondent. William Forth et al., Petitioners ,
The Department of Natural Resources et al., Respondents

Argued October 29, 2013

Reconsideration denied April 1, 2015.

Appeal from King County Superior Court. No. 11-2-05769-1. Honorable LeRoy McCullough.

Darrell L. Cochran, Loren A. Cochran, and Kevin M. Hastings (of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC ), for petitioners.

Robert W. Ferguson, Attorney General, and Mark C. Jobson, Assistant ; Louis D. Peterson, Michael R. Scott, and Alexander M. Wu (of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson PS ); Kelly P. Corr, Seann C. Colgan, and Joshua J. Preece (of Corr Cronin Michelson Baumgardner Fogg & Moore LLP ), for respondents.

Mark D. Schedler and Daniel W. Ferm on behalf of Washington Land Title Association, Washington Realtors, and Washington Forest Products Association, amici curiae.

AUTHOR: Justice Debra L. Stephens. WE CONCUR: Justice Charles W. Johnson, Justice Susan Owens, Justice Mary E. Fairhurst, Justice Steven C. González. AUTHOR: Justice Charles K. Wiggins. WE CONCUR: Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, James M. Johnson, Justice Pro Tem.


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[182 Wn.2d 245] Stephens, J.

¶ 1 Petitioners William Ralph and William Forth et al. (Forth) appeal the dismissal of their separate actions against the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Green Diamond Resource Company (collectively DNR). Their suits, filed in King County

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Superior Court, seek monetary damages for the flooding of real property located in Lewis County. At issue is the distinction between venue and jurisdiction, in the context of a statute providing that actions " for any injuries to real property" " shall be commenced" in the county in which the property is located. RCW 4.12.010(1). Case law from the 1940s and 1950s held that RCW 4.12.010 is jurisdictional, so that an improperly commenced action must be dismissed if filed in a superior [182 Wn.2d 246] court outside the local county. See, e.g., Snyder v. Ingram, 48 Wn.2d 637, 639, 296 P.2d 305 (1956); Cugini v. Apex Mercury Mining Co., 24 Wn.2d 401, 409, 165 P.2d 82 (1946). More recently, we have interpreted similar (though not identical) statutes to prescribe only venue in light of article IV, section 6 of the Washington State Constitution, which grants universal original subject matter jurisdiction to the superior courts. See Young v. Clark, 149 Wn.2d 130, 134, 65 P.3d 1192 (2003); Shoop v. Kittitas County, 149 Wn.2d 29, 37, 65 P.3d 1194 (2003). In dicta in Five Corners Family Farmers v. State, 173 Wn.2d 296, 315 n.5, 268 P.3d 892 (2011), we suggested that we might need to reconsider our earlier precedent. Today, we do just that and hold RCW 4.12.010 relates to venue, not jurisdiction. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


¶ 2 In December 2007, heavy rains caused the Chehalis River to overflow its banks, resulting in widespread flooding in Lewis County. Ralph v. Dep't of Natural Res., 171 Wn.App. 262, 264, 286 P.3d 992 (2012). The properties of Ralph and Forth were among those affected. Id. Ralph and Forth filed separate suits in King County Superior Court against DNR, alleging negligence; trespass; tortious interference with contractual relations and business expectancies; conversion; inverse condemnation; unlawful agency action; and violations of the Shoreline Management Act of 1971, chapter 90.58 RCW, and the State Environmental Policy Act, chapter 43.21C RCW. Id. at 264-65. Ralph and Forth assert that DNR's poor forestry practices made its land unstable, thereby allowing landslides to form and debris to flow into the Chehalis River, which in turn displaced river water, flooded the river basin, and caused damage to their property. Id. at 265.

¶ 3 The King County Superior Court dismissed these complaints on the ground that it lacked subject matter [182 Wn.2d 247] jurisdiction under RCW 4.12.010(1), which requires actions " for any injuries to real property" " be commenced in the county in which the subject of the action, or some part thereof, is situated." Ralph and Forth appealed to Division One of the Court of Appeals, arguing the trial court should have transferred rather than dismissed their actions because RCW 4.12.010 concerns venue, not jurisdiction, and because the statute did not apply to their claims. Id. The Court of Appeals consolidated the cases and affirmed the trial court's dismissal. Id. at 265, 270. We granted discretionary review. Ralph v. Dep't of Natural Res., 176 Wn.2d 1024, 301 P.3d 1047 (2013).


¶ 4 This case asks us to determine whether RCW 4.12.010(1) applies to tort actions for monetary damages and whether its filing requirements relate to venue or jurisdiction in light of article IV, section 6. RCW 4.12.010 provides in pertinent part:

Actions for the following causes shall be commenced in the county in which the subject of the action, or some part thereof, is situated:
(1) For the recovery of, for the possession of, for the partition of, for the foreclosure of a mortgage on, or for the determination of all questions affecting the title, or for any injuries to real property.

( Emphasis added.) [1] The trial court held RCW 4.12.010 applies to Ralph's and Forth's

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actions, requiring suit be [182 Wn.2d 248] filed in Lewis County (not King County), and dismissed their actions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

¶ 5 We review questions of statutory interpretation de novo. Dot Foods, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 166 Wn.2d 912, 919, 215 P.3d 185 (2009). Our " fundamental objective in construing a statute is to ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent." Arborwood Idaho, LLC v. City of Kennewick, 151 Wn.2d 359, 367, 89 P.3d 217 (2004). In doing so, we cannot " simply ignore" express terms. In re Parentage of J.M.K., 155 Wn.2d 374, 393, 119 P.3d 840 (2005). We must interpret a statute as a whole so that, if possible, " 'no clause, sentence, or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.'" State ex rel. Baisden v. Preston, 151 Wash. 175, 177, 275 P. 81 (1929) (quoting Market Co. v. Hoffman, 101 U.S. 112, 115-16, 25 L.Ed. 782 (1879)). Additionally, " [i]f the legislature uses a term well known to the common law, it is presumed that the legislature intended to mean what it was understood to mean at common law." N.Y. Life Ins. Co. v. Jones, 86 Wn.2d 44, 47, 541 P.2d 989 (1975). And, when the constitutionality of a statute is in question, " every presumption favors the validity of an act of the Legislature, all doubts must be resolved in support of the act, and it will not be declared unconstitutional unless it clearly appears to be so." Grant v. Spellman, 99 Wn.2d 815, 819, 664 P.2d 1227 (1983). Similarly, " [w]here our precedents contain language at odds with the constitutional powers of the superior courts, the constitution prevails." State v. Posey, 174 Wn.2d 131, 140, 272 P.3d 840 (2012).

¶ 6 Because consideration of Ralph and Forth's contention that RCW 4.12.010 does not apply to their cases may avoid deciding a constitutional question, we examine it first. See Cmty. Telecable of Seattle, Inc. v. City of Seattle, Dep't of Exec. Admin., 164 Wn.2d 35, 41, 186 P.3d 1032 (2008) ( " We will avoid deciding constitutional questions where a case may be fairly resolved on other grounds." ).

[182 Wn.2d 249] I. Actions for Monetary Relief for Damages to Real Property Are Actions " for Injuries to Real Property"

¶ 7 Ralph and Forth contend that RCW 4.12.010 applies only to local actions, requiring that we construe its application to " any injuries to real property" narrowly so as to encompass only injuries that affect title to real property and not actions for monetary damages, which they consider to be transitory. Both the trial court and Court of Appeals rejected this argument. Ralph, 171 Wn.App. at 265, 267. So do we.

¶ 8 RCW 4.12.010(1) expressly distinguishes between actions for " the determination of all questions affecting the title" and actions for " any injuries to real property" and states that it applies to both. Limiting " any injuries" to injuries to title, as Ralph and Forth suggest, ignores the statute's broad language and renders a category of actions superfluous because the statute already applies to " questions affecting ... title." RCW 4.12.010. By its plain terms, the statute encompasses more than injuries to title. It applies to " any injuries to real property," including actions for monetary damages to real property.

¶ 9 Our broader reading is consistent with the fact that RCW 4.12.010 is rooted in the common law, which has historically considered actions for damages to real property resulting from trespass to be injuries to real property that are local in nature unless grounded in contract. 2 Blackstone's Commentaries *294 n.3 (George Sharswood ed., 1876) (noting that " [a]ctions for every kind of injury to real property are local, as for nuisances, waste, [etc.], unless there be some contract between the parties, on which to ground the action" ); 1 Joseph Chitty et al., A Treatise on Pleading and to Actions 268 (11th Amer. ed. 1851) (" So actions, though merely for damages, occasioned by injuries to real property, are local, as trespass or case for nuisances ... or waste, [etc.] to houses [or] lands ... unless [182 Wn.2d 250] there were some contract

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between the parties on which to ground the action." ). Even in Blackstone's day, it was required that in " local actions, where possession of land is to be recovered, or damages for an actual trespass, or for waste, [etc.] affecting land, the plaintiff must lay his declaration or declare his injury to have happened in the very county and place that it really did happen." 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries *294 (second emphasis added).

¶ 10 In accord with the common law, we have held that actions seeking damages for injuries to real property from flooding fall within the purview of RCW 4.12.010's predecessor, Remington's 1915 Code § 204. See State ex rel. King County v. Superior Court, 104 Wash. 268, 176 P. 352 (1918); see also N. Bend Lumber Co. v. City of Seattle, 147 Wash. 330, 266 P. 156 (1928). In State ex rel. King County, a meat company brought an action against King County for " damages alleged to have been suffered by the wrongful, careless and negligent deflection of the stream against the banks and shores bounding the property of the meat company." 104 Wash. at 269. We held that § 204 applies, requiring the action be commenced in King County. Id. at 274. We similarly held in North Bend Lumber Co. that a negligence action arising from damages to a mill plant from impounding waters of the Cedar River is local, not transitory. 147 Wash. at 331, 335-36. Ralph's and Forth's present actions for damages to their property from flooding are indistinguishable.

¶ 11 Ralph and Forth nevertheless insist that claims seeking monetary damages for injuries to real and personal property are personal, transitory actions outside the ambit of RCW 4.12.010. Appellants' Br. at 16-20. None of the cases on which they rely support their contention. Most involve contract claims, which have always been treated differently under common law. See Silver Surprize, Inc. v. Sunshine Mining Co., 74 Wn.2d 519, 520-21, 445 P.2d 334 (1968) (contract for exchange of conveyances); State ex rel. U.S. Trust Co. v. Phillips, 12 Wn.2d 308, 309-10, 121 P.2d 360 [182 Wn.2d 251] (1942) (contract for sale of timber); Shelton v. Farkas, 30 Wn.App. 549, 551, 635 P.2d 1109 (1981) (contract for sale of a violin). And their reliance on McLeod v. Ellis, 2 Wash. 117');"> 2 Wash. 117, 122, 26 P. 76 (1891) (conversion of trees), and Washington State Bank v. Medalia Healthcare, LLC, 96 Wn.App. 547, 549, 984 P.2d 1041 (1999) (conversion of collateral), is unavailing because a conversion action is not the same as a claim for injuries to land. McLeod, 2 Wash. at 122.

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