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DeCaro v. Spokane County

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

April 11, 2017

Frank DeCaro, as personal representative for the ESTATE OF JESSICA ALVARADO, Appellant,

          KORSMO, J.

         Frank 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.


         This 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.

         The 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 the incarcerated.

         The 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.

          The 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 8, 2016.

         Judge 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[1] 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.

         An 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.


         The 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.

         The 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, ...

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