Frank DeCaro, as personal representative for the ESTATE OF JESSICA ALVARADO, Appellant,
SPOKANE COUNTY, Respondent.
DeCaro, as representative of the estate of his daughter,
Jessica Alvarado, appeals a Spokane County Superior Court
ruling vacating a default judgment obtained against Spokane
County (County). Concluding that the Estate failed to
establish any error by the trial court, we affirm.
case arises from the tragic death of Ms. Alvarado in the
Spokane County Jail on August 13, 2012. The Estate filed a
tort claim with the county on July 17, 2015, requesting $8,
000, 000. The County did not respond. The Estate then filed
suit on September 18, 2015, alleging wrongful death, a
survival action, and negligence in failing to address Ms.
Alvarado's medical needs. The complaint was served on the
Spokane County Auditor's Office on September 22, 2015.
The matter was forwarded to the county's risk manager.
risk manager apparently failed to forward the notice to
defense counsel. No appearance was filed on behalf of the
County. On November 6, 2015, the Estate obtained an order
finding the County in default. On December 2, 2015, the trial
court entered a default judgment for $8, 000, 546.25. That
figure represented $4, 000, 000 for Ms. Alvarado's
damages, $4, 000, 000 for her son's loss of consortium,
and the remainder for costs and statutory attorney fees. The
following day, counsel for the County filed a notice of
appearance. Six days later, December 9, 2015, the County
filed an answer to the complaint that raised three defenses:
contributory negligence, reasonable use of force, and
reasonable action in accordance with the County's duty to
County on December 21, 2015, moved to set aside the order of
default and the judgment pursuant to CR 60(b)(1). The County
contended that it had made an inadvertent mistake, had
substantial evidence in support of a prima facie defense to
the claim, acted with due diligence after receiving notice of
the default judgment, and also alleged that the Estate would
not suffer substantial hardship. The County explained its
prima facie case, argued that the damages were excessive, and
offered to pay the plaintiffs attorney fees for obtaining the
default judgment and responding to the motion to vacate.
Estate countered with an argument that the County failed to
provide a strong or virtually conclusive defense and that its
prima facie defense was contradicted by the Estate's
witnesses, the damages were supported by the evidence, and
that the County's failure to follow its own policies
amounted to inexcusable neglect as a matter of law. The
matter was argued to the Honorable Annette Plese on January
Plese granted the motion to vacate, reasoning that the case
law required her to ask "is the default just and
equitable in this case?" Report of Proceedings (RP) at
38. She characterized the matter as a case of "an
excusable neglect." Id Considering the four factors
required by White v. Holm, 73 Wn.2d 348, 352, 438
P.2d 581 (1968), the trial court determined that all had been
met. RP at 40. The court concluded:
When the Court looks at what's just and proper,
what's just and proper is this case needs to be heard on
the merits and not on a default, and so based on that, the
Court is going to grant the Motion to Set Aside the Default
at this time and let the case be heard on the merits.
RP at 40.
order granting the motion thereafter was entered. The Estate
promptly appealed to this court. A panel heard oral argument
at the request of the Estate.
Estate argues that the trial court applied the wrong standard
to its analysis of the case and thereby abused its
discretion. It also claims an entitlement to attorney fees on
appeal. After first discussing the governing standards for
our review, we turn to the Estate's arguments.
decision to vacate a default judgment is reviewed for abuse
of discretion. Griggs v. Averbeck Realty, Inc., 92
Wn.2d 576, 582, 599 P.2d 1289 (1979). Discretion is abused
when it is exercised on untenable grounds or for untenable
reasons. State ex rel. Carroll v. Junker, 79 Wn.2d
12, 26, 482 P.2d 775 (1971). Refusal to vacate a default
judgment is more likely to amount to an abuse of discretion
because default judgments are generally disfavored.
White, 73 Wn.2d at 351-52. Stated another way,
Washington has a strong preference for giving parties their
day in court. Morin v. Burris,160 Wn.2d 745, 754,
161 P.3d 956 (2007); Griggs, ...