Part 3 – Claims for Damages: “Substantial Compliance”

Before its amendment in 2009, RCW 4.92.100 stated that “With respect to the content of such claims, this section shall be liberally construed so that substantial compliance will be deemed satisfactory.” Similarly, RCW 4.96.010(1) (which was not amended in 2009) provides that “The laws specifying the content for such claims shall be liberally construed so that substantial compliance therewith will be deemed satisfactory.”

Based on the language of these statutes, Washington courts required substantial compliance with the “content” requirements of RCW 4.92.100 and RCW 4.96.020. See Medina v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1, 147 Wn.2d 303, 53 P.3d 993 (2002); Reyes v. City of Renton, 121 Wn. App. 498, 86 P.3d 155 (2004). On the other hand, these cases required strict compliance with claim filing procedures on the basis that filing a claim is a condition precedent to commencing an action seeking damages from governmental entities. Medina v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1, supra; Reyes v. City of Renton, supra. As explained by the court in Reyes:

Although the claim filing statutory scheme authorizes substantial compliance with the laws specifying the content of the notice of claims, strict compliance is clearly emphasized with the filing procedures themselves. Failure to strictly comply with statutory filing requirements leads to dismissal of the action.  Reyes v. City of Renton, 121 Wn. App. at 502 (citations omitted).

The application of this strict compliance rule sometimes led to harsh results. For example, in the Medina case, the court affirmed the dismissal of a personal injury case brought by a motorist against a county public utility district on the basis that the he had failed to strictly comply with the 60-day waiting period between presentation of his tort claim to the utility district and the commencement of his action in the superior court. The 2009 amendments to the claim statutes overrule the strict compliance rules cases, and now provide that “[w]ith respect to the content of claims under this section and all procedural requirements in this section, this section must be liberally construed so that substantial compliance will be deemed satisfactory.” RCW 4.92.100(3); RCW 4.96.020(5) (emphasis added). Presumably, cases addressing what constitutes substantial compliance for purposes of the claim statutes still remain good law after the 2009 amendments. For example, in Renner v. City of Marysville, 145 Wn. App. 443, 187 P.3d 283 (2008), the court held that, for purposes of the claim-filing statutes for tort claims, the substantial compliance rule has two necessary conditions: first, there must be a sufficient bona fide attempt by the claimant to comply with the law even though the attempt may be defective in some particular, and, second, the attempt at compliance must actually accomplish the statutory purpose of the claim statutes, which is to give governmental entities sufficient notice to enable them to investigate the cause and character of the injury.

Part 2 – Claims for Damages

After a long hiatus, I’m back in the blogging saddle. Where I last left off was a preliminary discussion regarding Claim for Damages…

Local governments and the State must make the standard form available with instructions on how the form is to be prese ted, along with the name, address, and business hours of the agent authorized to receive the claim. RXCW. 4.92.100(2); RCW 4.96.020(c).

The standardized claim form developed by the state must not require disclosure of the claimant’s social security number. It also “must not” require information that is not specified in the statute. RCW 4.95.100(2). If a local governmental entity develops its own form, the form may request additional information beyond that set forth in RCW 4.96.020(3)(a), but the local governmental entity may not deny a claim because of a claimant’s failure to provide that additional information. RCW 4.96.020(3)(c)(i). As with the state’s standardized form, claim forms developed by local governmental entities “must not” require a claimant’s social security number. RCW 4.96.020(3)(c)(ii).

Although both RCW 4.92.100 and RCW 4.96.020 require the claimant to include the amount of damages claimed, the amount of damages stated on the claim form is not admissible at trial. RCW 4.92.100(c); RCW 4.96.020(3)(f). RCW 4.92.100(2) directs that “the standard tort claim form…must not require information not specified under this section.” Despite this statutory restriction, the standard tort claim form recently developed by the state appears to violate this provision by requesting a significant amount of information beyond that required by RCW 4.92.100(1)(a). (For example, the standard form asks for the “names, addresses and telephone numbers of treating medical providers” and for “copies of all medical reports and billings”, even though the statute does not require a claimant to disclose any of this information).[1] Because the standard tort claim form “must” only require information specified in RCW 4.92.100(1)(a), a claimant should object under RCW 4.92.100(2) to any items on the form that request information not specified under the statute.

Under RCW 4.96.020(3)(f), if a municipality develops its own tort claim form, the claimant has the option of choosing to file the standard tort claim form or the local tort claim form; “presenting either the standard tort claim form or the local government tort claim form satisfies the requirements of [the statute].” As explained above, if a claimant chooses to file the standard tort claim form against a local governmental entity, an objection should be made based on RCW 4.92.100(2) to any items on the standard tort claim form that request information not specified in RCW 4.96.020(3)(a).

Unlike the previous requirement, under the 2009 legislation, a claimant no longer is required to identify what was his or her residential address six months prior to the time the claim arose, stating instead only his or her actual residence at the time the claim arose. RCW 4.92.100(1)(a)(vii); RCW 4.96.020(3)(a)(vii). Another major change made by the 2009 amendments is that a claim may now be signed either by the claimant (who must also verify the claim), by the claimant’s attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney, by an attorney licensed to practice in Washington, or by a court-approved guardian or guardian ad litem on behalf of the claimant. RCW 4.92.100(1)(b); RCW 4.96.020(3)(b).

A claim against a local governmental entity is deemed presented when the form is delivered in person or received by the agent by regular mail, registered mail or certified mail, with return receipt requested. RCW 4.96.020(2). Similarly, for claims against the State, presentation of the claim is accomplished by service upon the agent or by registered mail. RCW 4.92.100(1).

When presenting a claim to a local governmental entity, practitioners should be careful to file the claim with the proper local agent. As indicated above, RCW 4.92.020(2) requires the governing body of each local  governmental entity to appoint an agent to receive claims for damages. The identity of the agent and the address where he or she may be reached during the normal business hours of the local governmental entity by law must be recorded with the auditor of the county in which the entity is located.

The 2009 amendments also clarify that for claims against local governments, if a claim form provided by a governmental entity fails to request the information specified in the statute or incorrectly lists the agent to whom the claim is to be filed, the local government is deemed to have waived any defense related to the failure to provide that specific information or to file with the proper agent. RCW 4.96.020(3)(d).

[1] Additional information requested on the standard tort claim form but not required by the statute includes: the names, addresses and phone numbers of all state employees having knowledge of the incident; a list of all witnesses on liability and damages and a description of the knowledge of each; and a list of documents that support the allegations of the claim. The standard tort claim form also must be signed under penalty of perjury, which again is not required by the statute.



Claim For Damages

Admittedly, I’ve not had a chance to blog recently. However, I was reminded of my goal to write about claims against the government, when reading about a recent $20 million claim by a WA state inmate against the City of Tacoma for excessive force.

Claims against government in WA State have unique requirements

Laws applicable to suits against governmental entities in Washington are unique in requiring the filing of a Claim for Damages (using the Standard Tort Claim Form) and waiting 60 days before filing suit. This requirement is jurisdictional and a failure to file the claim and/or to wait the 60 days has been fatal to some unsafe roadway cases.

Under RCW 4.92.100(1) as amended in 2009, claims against the State must now be presented on a standard tort claim form. The statute requires the Office of Financial Management to “maintain” the form and put it on its website.

Claims against the local governments may be presented on either the state’s standard tort claim form or a form provided by the local government, under RCW 4.96.020(3)(c).

I’ll write more about this in the coming days/weeks, as there is much to cover.


Municipalities Need to Monitor & Respond to Changing Conditions

On days like today, I’m reminded of why the Pacific Northwest is a top tourist destination during the late spring and summer. Unlike 10 years ago, however, downtown Seattle remains lively through the evenings. This means more street traffic as well as a lot more foot traffic exists in many neighborhoods in and near the city’s core.

Street injuries arise when a municipality fails to monitor traffic/volume changes

Cities need to monitor changing conditions in traffic volume.

Increasing traffic volumes. A new mall near what used to be a subdued area of downtown. A new school with kids now crossing a busy street by the school. Municipalities need to monitor and respond to changing conditions, as what was once a safe street may have grown hazardous.

An unsafe condition develops when the lack of gaps in major street traffic creates frustration for turning vehicles or pedestrians attempting to cross the street, with people forced to use their bodies to challenge oncoming traffic to slow or stop.

Do cars turning left to get to the new mall need left-turn channelization and a left-turn green arrow?  Have there been left-turning collisions (failure to yield right of way) because there simply were inadequate gaps in traffic to safely turn within a reasonable waiting period? Is a pedestrian-actuated traffic signal needed to provide protected crossing for students?

Has a street become so busy that a pedestrian refuge island is needed halfway across?

Vehicle counts and collision data are just facts that governmental entities need to stay on top of, to identify needs for corrective measures.

Well-qualified transportation engineers are familiar not only with the tools available to state and local road departments for solutions, but they are also aware of applicable standards, warrants and requirements for the safe operation of streets and highways.  A violation of those standards, warrants and requirements, without a valid excuse, is evidence of negligence.