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Peralta v. State

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

February 16, 2017

DEBORAH PERALTA, Petitioner,
v.
STATE OF WASHINGTON and WASHINGTON STATE PATROL, Respondents.

          WIGGINS, J.

         We are asked to review the trial court's ruling that plaintiff Deborah Peralta's admission during pretrial discovery should be given conclusive effect. Peralta admitted without qualification to being "under the influence of intoxicating liquors" at the time she was struck and injured by a Washington State Patrol car. We hold that her admission in this context was unambiguous and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ruled she was bound by her admission. The jury instruction incorporating this ruling was appropriate. Even if the meaning of Peralta's admission was ambiguous, the trial court did not abuse its discretion on holding Peralta to a reasonable interpretation of the admission. As a result, we reverse the Court of Appeals on this point. We do not address the other evidentiary errors identified by the Court of Appeals, but instead remand them to the Court of Appeals for a determination of prejudice.

         FACTS

         I. Factual History

         One evening, plaintiff Peralta was drinking beer with a neighbor in a downtown Vancouver tavern. Later in the evening, Peralta rode with a friend to a party.

         After an argument at the party, Peralta left on foot, became lost, and called her brother Jorge Peralta. She told him she had been drinking and asked for a ride home.[1]After several unsuccessful efforts to meet her brother, Peralta mistook an approaching car for her brother's car. She stepped in front of the car, which was driven by Washington State Patrol Sergeant Ryan Tanner.[2] Sergeant Tanner did not see Peralta in time to stop and struck her with his vehicle. Realizing that he had struck someone, Sergeant Tanner called for backup and medical assistance; responding officers indicated Peralta smelled like alcohol when they were giving her assistance at the scene of the accident. Peralta suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized.

         II. Procedural History

         To recover damages arising from her injuries after the accident, Peralta sued the State and Washington State Patrol (collectively WSP). In its answer, WSP pleaded an affirmative defense under RCW 5.40.060 (the intoxication defense statute), which provides a complete defense to an action for damages for personal injury when (1) the person injured was "under the influence of intoxicating liquor" at the time of the accident, (2) the person's intoxication was a proximate cause of his or her injuries, and (3) the person injured was more than 50 percent at fault. The statute also provides that the standard for proving an individual was under the influence is the same standard established by RCW 46.61.502 (the DUI statute[3]). Under the DUI statute, there are at least two relevant ways of proving intoxication under these facts: subsection (1)(a), a blood alcohol content of 0.08, or subsection (1)(c), driving a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquors.

         During discovery, WSP sent Peralta a request to admit or deny that "at the time of the collision that is the subject of this lawsuit, Deborah Peralta was under the influence of intoxicating liquors." Peralta responded, "Plaintiff admits." At trial, WSP moved for a ruling that Peralta's admission conclusively established that she was under the influence of intoxicating liquors. Peralta objected to the motion and stated that her admission to being under the influence did not meet the standard for being under the influence under the intoxication defense statute. The trial court ultimately ruled that Peralta was bound by her admission and that the fact that she was intoxicated at the time of the injury was conclusively established.

         The trial court incorporated this ruling into jury instruction 20, which stated in relevant part:

To establish the defense that the person injured was under the influence, the defendant has the burden of proving each of the following propositions:
First, that the person injured was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the occurrence causing the injury. Plaintiff admits this element.

Clerk's Papers at 363 (emphasis added). The jury found that Peralta's intoxication was a proximate cause of her injuries and that she was more than 50 percent at fault. As a result, the trial court dismissed Peralta's personal injury claim with prejudice. Peralta appealed to the Court of Appeals, Division Two.

         The Court of Appeals, Division Two, overturned the trial court's decision on the effect of Peralta's admission. See Peralta v. State, 191 Wn.App. 931, 949, 366 P.3d 45 (2015). The court concluded that Peralta's admission did not satisfy the standard for intoxication under the intoxication defense statute. Id. at 948-49. It further concluded that this error was harmful because the jury was not allowed to consider the testimony of Peralta's friend that Peralta did not appear intoxicated the night of the accident. Id. The Court of Appeals also concluded that jury instruction 20 was error and harmful for the same reasons. Id. at 949. The Court of Appeals identified three other evidentiary errors but did not decide whether these errors were prejudicial to Peralta. Id. at 951-54.

         Both Peralta and WSP appealed the Court of Appeals' decision. Peralta appealed the Court of Appeals' decision to remand for a new trial; Peralta argued she should have judgment for her proportionate share of the damages found by the jury. We denied Peralta's petition for review. WSP cross petitioned to overturn the Court of Appeals' determination that Peralta's admission did not satisfy the required proof for intoxication under the intoxication defense statute. This court granted review of WSP's cross petition.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "The standard of review for evidentiary rulings made by the trial court is abuse of discretion." City of Spokane v. Neff, 152 Wn.2d 85, 91, 93 P.3d 158 (2004).[4] We will reverse a trial court's evidentiary ruling '"only when no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court.'" State v. Ellis, 136 Wn.2d 498, 504, 963 P.2d 843 (1998) (quoting State v. Castellanos, 132 Wn.2d 94, 97, 935 P.2d 1353 (1997)).

         We recognize that the trial court's ruling establishing the conclusive effect of Peralta's admission also made its way into the jury instruction. We review jury instructions de novo. See State v. Johnson, 180 Wn.2d 295, 301, 325 P.3d 135 (2014).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Admission Ruling Not an Abuse of Discretion

         We hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it found that Peralta's admission satisfied the standard for intoxication under the intoxication defense statute. In context, the meaning of Peralta's admission was not ambiguous. We thus hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ruled that Peralta admitted she was intoxicated for purposes ...


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