Washington Supreme Court

What’s in a name–Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Koehler Moore Kahler*?

This past Friday, rapellers prepare to hang our new sign.

This past Friday, rapellers prepare to hang our new sign.

Since our move to our new building, our firm continues to scale to new heights. Figuratively, we helped shape and advance law to make the roads safer in our state: The Washington Supreme Court‘s unanimous decision of Wuthrich v. King County  was one of our more recent victories, which tossed out old law and clearly stated that governmental entities have the same duty as private landowners in maintaining their land so that people can travel safely on adjacent roads.

Literally, we have people scaling our building at our new location to hang exterior signage.

But, we are focused on our work…

Karen barely notices the men rapelling off our buildling, as she focuses on the work at hand. (Her doggie, Nala, is perhaps a little more aware of the men.)

Karen barely notices the men rapelling off our buildling, as she focuses on the work at hand. (Her doggie, Nala, is perhaps a little more aware of the men.)

But, we can still enjoy the fact that we are loving our new building, inside and out. Pictured below is our new reception signage.

Thelma shows off our new interior signage

Thelma shows off our new interior signage

*NOTE: Stritmatter Kessler Whelan is now officially Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Koehler Moore Kahler

WA Supreme Court decision is unanimous: Government has a duty to provide safe roads

Overgrown blackberry bushes (see left side of photo) obstructed drivers' view of oncoming traffic.

Overgrown blackberry bushes (see left side of photo) obstructed drivers’ view of oncoming traffic.

Often my heart swells with pride for the work that my firm does because the results from our cases truly make our state safer for everyone. Today is one of those days: In a unanimous decision in Wuthrich v. King County, the Washington State Supreme Court held that a municipality has a duty to take reasonable steps to address overgrown roadside vegetation that makes the roadway unsafe for drivers approaching an intersection.

Today’s decision advances roadway safety for anyone who travels the roads in Washington State. As our state’s highest court maintains: A municipality has the overarching duty to provide reasonably safe roads and must be held to the same standards as that applied to private parties.

Our state’s supreme court now explicitly rejects old law that held that a municipality’s duty is limited to mere compliance with applicable law. Moreover, an “inherently dangerous condition” does not exclusively depend on a condition that “exists in the roadway itself.” A hazard may exist as a situation along a highway, such as overgrown bushes that obstruct drivers’ view of oncoming traffic.

The decision today stems from a June 2011 lawsuit that Guy Wuthrich filed against Christa Gilland and King County. Guy was riding a motorcycle on Avondale Road NE in King County, approaching an intersection with NE 159th Street on June 20, 2008 at about 5:15 PM. Drivers on 159th St. have a stop sign at the intersection, but drivers on Avondale Road do not. Christa Gilland was driver a car on 159th Street. When she reached the intersection with Avondale Rd., she stopped to wait for passing traffic. She did not see Guy approaching from her left. She turned left onto Avondale Road and collided into Guy’s motorcycle, resulting in serious injuries to Guy. The lawsuit alleged that the County was liable for Guy’s injuries because the wall of overgrown blackberry bushes on County property obstructed Ms. Gilland’s view of traffic at the intersection. The trial court dismissed the action against the County on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split decision.

Some of you may have already seen our Ray Kahler argue before the Supreme Court. But, in case you missed it and want to hear some stellar arguments, click here.  Kudos to the entire team, including Ray, Keith Kessler, Garth Jones and Brad J. Moore.

Watch the WA Supreme Court oral arguments for Wuthrich v. King County

Decide for yourself who has the more cogent arguments, when watching the Washington State Supreme Court oral arguments for Wuthrich v. King County. We’re proud of Ray Kahler, Seattle/Hoquiam trial lawyer for demonstrating his mastery of the relevant case law in arguing for Wuthrich.

Ray Kahler argues in front of the Washington State Supreme Court

Today, our own Ray Kahler* argued in front of the Washington State Supreme Court on behalf of plaintiff Wuthrich against King County. To boil the issue down to the most basic form: Does the County have a duty to maintain property where overgrown vegetation may obstruct sight lines and result in a car accident?

The Supreme Court has not decided this issue, and it has been over 50 years since the Supreme Court has addressed the question of whether a governmental entity can be liable for failure to maintain vegetation that presents a sight obstruction.  This case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to decide these questions.

Our SKW legal team* argued that, in light of the waiver of sovereign immunity, a governmental entity should be held to the same standard as a private landowner with regard to the duty to maintain vegetation: It should not create a hazard for motorists on the adjacent roadways.

Check back for a link to today’s oral arguments!

*Ray Kahler, Keith Kessler along with Garth Jones and Brad J. Moore make up the SKW team for plaintiff Guy Wuthrich.

CNAs attempt to get minimum staffing levels mandated

When reading one of my favorite sites for local updates, the Public News Service, I was reminded about the sad state of affairs for Washington caregivers in the nursing home industry. Washington doesn’t have a state law that spells out minimum staffing levels in nursing homes.  In the 2015 legislative session, nursing home caregivers will continue their battle to implement some basic staffing minimums.

Nursing/healthcare workers union members lobby for minimum staffing standards later this month.

Nursing/healthcare workers union members lobby for minimum staffing standards later this month.

Nursing home workers cite three reasons to mandate minimum staff-to-resident ratios: 1) Better care for nursing home residents, 2) Less turnover for weary staff members, and 3) Greater safety for both groups.

Shelly Hughes has been a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in Washington facilities for five years. She explained that rarely is there enough time or enough staff in place to give residents the care they need. “One of the most heartbreaking things about my job is that I see great, kindhearted, hard-working people leaving,” she says. “Not only my facility, but the industry entirely because they’re so frustrated with the level of care we’re able to give our residents.”

Ms. Hughes says under current conditions, a CNA could be on duty for 15 or 20 residents.  Can you imagine? That ratio is not at all conducive to quality care for nursing home patients. However, Hughes points out that the facilities know in advance when state surveyors are coming to inspect. This is when managers pitch in and there are plenty of people scheduled.

AARP research indicates an annual turnover rate of 52% among nursing home workers in the state. Hughes says SEIU’s proposal would implement staffing rules over a three-year period, and nursing homes would submit monthly staffing reports with payroll records to the state, to confirm that they’re in compliance. She and other caregivers with SEIU Local 775 have been sharing their stories with Washington lawmakers, and she believes a new state law is a matter of time. “It will take a while, but I haven’t met a legislator yet that disagrees with anything I have to say,” says Hughes. “I think the will is there, we just have to find a way.” She adds, Oregon and California both have direct-care staff requirements for nursing homes. Washington caregivers will make their case at a lobby day in Olympia later this month, January 29.  

Take a peek at the local nurses union and their inspirational message to its members at its website.

Remembering Justice Robert Utter, a captain of justice

Justice Utter was a revered jurist, who passed away earlier this month.

Justice Utter was a revered jurist, who passed away earlier this month. (Photo credit: Legacy Washington, Secr. of State)

Earlier this month, we lost a true captain of justice, retired Washington Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter, who died at age 84. I call him a “captain” because one of his passions was sailing.  Utter served as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1979 to 1981. That period was when Washington State’s new death penalty legislation was tested in both the high court and the federal courts.

Paul Stritmatter, invited to speak this Wednesday in honor of the 25th anniversary of Sofie v. Fibreboard, will pay homage to this great figure in his speech. Utter authored the Sofie decision, which removed the cap on damages for personal injury plaintiffs, altering the landscape of tort law in this state.

Utter was a revered jurist for his constitutional analysis, for his high moral standards, and for his empathy of the plight of those less fortunate.  Beyond our state and country, he traveled to the far reaches of the globe and helped no less than 20 countries to implement justice systems and to adopt meaningful constitutions.

In 1992, the Dali Lama’s legal adviser called Utter to seek advice about how to draft the criminal law code for the Tibetan Government in Exile. Utter’s focus was on rehabilitation and dispute resolution.

In 1995, Utter resigned over what he perceived as the court’s failure by the court to adequately consider proportionality in weighing capital sentences. During the 1990’s, he also taught Constitutional Law at my alma mater, formerly the University of Puget Sound Law School (now Seattle University School of Law).

In 2003, in recognition of his work with judges in emerging democracies, Utter received the CEELI Volunteers Award from the American Bar Association. This award was one of the most meaningful awards for Utter, who explained, “It’s been a great privilege. The greatest has been to see the dedication of people around the world under incredible circumstances working to develop the rule of law in their own countries.” About a poll taken in Haiti in 2011, Utter wrote: “In a country with massive unemployment, brutality, corruption, poverty and a pervading sense of hopelessness, the primary wish was for the availability of justice for all and for a non-corrupt court system… The fulfillment of this universal longing for justice and access to a fair judicial system does not occur without an investment of time, energy, commitment and courage.”

Indeed, Justice Utter invested a lifetime of energy, commitment and courage in the furtherance of justice.  We honor this remarkable jurist.

Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers’ Memorial Service

Paul Stritmatter delivered a moving eulogy at Justice Chamber's memorial service.

Paul Stritmatter delivered a moving eulogy at Justice Chamber’s memorial service. Photo Credit: Laura Anglin

On April 30, 2014, there was a memorial gathering at the Temple of Justice in Olympia, Washington to honor the retired Chief Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers. Justice Chambers died on Dec. 11, 2013 at age 70. Along with the current Washington Supreme Court Justices, Governor Jay Inslee, retired Supreme Court Justice Utter attended.  The music of bagpiper and the Suquamish Singers filled the courtroom.

Our very own Paul Stritmatter gave a moving eulogy.

A native of Yakima, he served on the Supreme Court from 2000 to 2012, when he retired early for health reasons. Prior to his election to the court he was in private practice focusing primarily on personal injury actions.
In 2012, the Washington State Association for Justice renamed its Trial Lawyer of the Year award the “Tom Chambers Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.” Also in 2012 he was honored with the Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Alumni Public Service award by the University of Washington School of Law, and he was recognized by the Seattle Housing Authority Neighborhood House with the Good Neighbor Award for 20 years of commitment to residents of Seattle Public Housing.

!Inslee listen

Gov. Inslee listening intently. Photo: Laura Anglin

“Tom Chambers was deeply committed to improving access to justice, spearheading the first ever Legal Needs Study in Washington, along with Justice Charles Johnson and Judge Mary Kay Becker,” said Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. “Tom was a man with a passion for life, the law, and adventure. He was a considerate and kind colleague who will be greatly missed by those who served with him.”
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