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Hedger v. Groeschell

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

May 15, 2017

MARIA HEDGER, a single person, Respondent,
v.
LISA GROESCHELL and JOHN DOE GROESCHELL, wife and husband, and the marital community composed thereof, Appellant.

          Trickey, J.

         Maria Hedger sued Lisa Groeschell for personal injuries sustained in an automobile accident. After Hedger prevailed at mandatory arbitration, Groeschell sought a jury trial de novo. During the litigation, the court imposed several thousand dollars in sanctions against Groeschell.

         The jury awarded Hedger less in damages than the arbitrator had awarded. The trial court then determined that Groeschell had not improved her position from the arbitration because the amount of sanctions ordered against her, combined with Hedger's damages, were greater than the arbitration award. Accordingly, the court awarded Hedger attorney fees.

         Groeschell appeals the trial court's award of attorney fees to Hedger. Because the trial court should not have considered the sanctions it imposed against Groeschell when comparing her postarbitration and posttrial positions, we reverse the award of attorney fees.

         Groeschell also appeals the trial court's decision to sanction her for raising the deception doctrine defense on the eve of trial. Because we agree with the trial court that Groeschell's actions constituted procedural bad faith, we affirm the imposition of sanctions.

         FACTS

         Hedger and Groeschell were in a car accident in September 2013. Hedger proceeded straight through an intersection as Groeschell started to make a left turn. The two vehicles collided.

         Hedger sued Groeschell for negligence. The case proceeded to mandatory arbitration. Hedger prevailed at arbitration. The arbitrator found Groeschell to be entirely at fault and awarded Hedger $17, 880.10 in damages. The arbitrator later amended that award to include $931.76 in statutory costs and fees, for a total award of $18, 811.86.

         Groeschell requested a trial de novo. Prior to trial, the court sanctioned Groeschell for failing to participate in good faith in the mediation and failing to timely disclose expert witness reports.

         A few days before trial, Groeschell asserted a deception doctrine defense. Groeschell withdrew the defense when she could not produce written documents showing she had raised it at arbitration. The court sanctioned her $3, 125 for procedural bad faith.

         The jury returned a verdict for Hedger but found her to be five percent at fault. It also found that her combined economic and general damages totaled only $11, 200. Thus, Hedger's total damage award at trial was $10, 640. The court awarded $2, 162.15 in statutory costs.[1] The three sanctions the court imposed on Groeschell totaled $6, 147.49. The total judgment after the trial de novo was $18, 949.64.

         Hedger moved for attorney fees under MAR 7.3 on the ground that Groeschell had not improved her position after the trial de novo. The court agreed with Hedger and awarded her over $60, 000 in attorney fees.

         Groeschell appeals the award of sanctions based on the deception doctrine defense and the trial court's award of attorney fees under MAR 7.3.

         ANALYSIS

         Sanctions

         Groeschell argues that the trial court abused its discretion in sanctioning her for raising the deception defense on the eve of trial. Specifically, she argues that pleading a contributory negligence defense satisfies any need to plead the deception doctrine defense and that, regardless, Hedger had sufficient notice that Groeschell intended to rely on the deception doctrine. Because the deception doctrine raises different issues than a general contributory negligence defense, and Groeschell did not otherwise provide adequate notice, we disagree.

         The trial court has the inherent authority to sanction a party for "bad faith." State v. S.H., 102 Wn.App. 468, 475, 8 P.3d 1058 (2000). "Procedural bad faith is unrelated to the merits of the case and refers to 'vexatious conduct during the course of litigation.'" Rogerson Hiller Corp. v. Port of Port Angeles, 96 Wn.App. 918, 928, 982 P.2d 131 (1999) (quoting Jane P. Mallor, Punitive Attorneys' Fees for Abuses of the Judicial System, 61 N.C. L. Rev. 613, 644 (1983)). The conduct can include delaying or disrupting litigation. S.H., 102Wn; App. at 475. To support sanctions under this inherent power, the trial court must make a finding that the litigant acted in bad faith. S.H., 102 Wn.App. at 475.

         This court reviews a trial court's decision to award sanctions for an abuse of ...


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