New decision regarding Mandatory Arbitration and Trial de Novo

Splattstoesser v. Scott, P.3d, 2011 WL 91040 (Div. III, 2011)

Those persons injured in an automobile crash in Washington have yet one more reason to be concerned, with a recent opinion that is being published by Division III of the Court of Appeals, Splattstoesser v. Scott, P.3d, 2011 WL 91040 (Div. III, 2011).¹ In this case, Ms. Splattstoesser was injured when another person, one Kenneth Scott, rear-ended her vehicle. No doubt because an agreement could not be reached with an insurance company,² whether because Mr. Scott or his insurance company refused to accept responsibility for the collision or the harm caused Ms. Splattstoesser, a lawsuit was filed.

Washington courts have a mechanism called Mandatory Arbitration. Mandatory Arbitration is intended to relieve court congestion by providing an expeditious, inexpensive method of dispute resolution for claims valued at $50,000.00 or less. Ms. Splattstoesser submitted her case to Mandatory Arbitration and was awarded a total of $18,014.00 for her losses. Mr. Scott requested that the matter be reheard by what is known as a trial de novo. Mr. Scott’s attorney (more likely that of his insurer, without knowledge of Mr. Scott), filed the request for a trial on behalf of “the Defendant, Simon Larson,” rather than Kenneth Scott.

Divison III of the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Scott’s attorney had substantially complied with the request for a new trial and that this was adequate to preserve such request. The reason for concern is that the backload of criminal litigation is increasingly burdening not only our courts, but our counties’ various resources. This failure to hold a defendant accountable for the paperwork he files, particularly when some insurance companies do so out of hand, regardless of the merits of the award and without regard for their insured’s wishes – chips away at the ability of an injured person to obtain justice in a fair and expeditious manner.

Civil litigants in Yakima and Grant Counties should be especially concerned with this development, as inadequate county resources mean civil cases are virtually being relegated to a bureaucratic grave. That may force plaintiffs with meritorious claims to settle their claim for less than fair value, because it is simply not worth their time to wait. If you do find yourself on a jury, in a civil lawsuit, be cognizant of what the plaintiff likely had to go through to have his day in court, and dispense justice accordingly.

¹Filed January 11, 2011.

²In almost any personal injury action, regardless of the parties named, it is a fair bet to assume that an insurance company is funding the defense. Parties are prohibited from discussing insurance in trial, per Washington Rule of Evidence 411. Don’t sweat it if you don’t hear the word. If you’re on a jury, the defendant almost certainly has insurance. If you’re on a jury in Grant County and the defense attorney is from another area, it is almost guaranteed (no insurance defense attorneys are located in Grant County).