07.20.2018

Washington Supreme Court Rules Joint And Several Liability Is Preserved When A Defendant Is Vicariously Liable

In a 5-4 split decision, the Washington Supreme Court held in Afoa v. Port of Seattle, No. 94525-0 (July 19, 2018) that RCW 4.22.070.(1)(a) preserves joint and several liability when a defendant is vicariously liable for another’s fault, but whether vicarious liability exists is a factual question.

The Plaintiff, Brandon Apela Afoa, commenced this action against the Port of Seattle for injuries sustained during his employment with an independent contractor operating at Sea-Tac International Airport. At trial, the Port asserted an empty chair defense against four non-party airlines. The jury found the Port retained control over Afoa’s employer’s work, which gave rise to a duty of care to Afoa. The $40 Million verdict was apportioned by the jury as follows: 0.2% to Plaintiff, 25% to the Port, and 74.8% split equally to the four airlines. Plaintiff appealed alleging the Port was vicariously liable for the airlines’ portion of the damages because it had a nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace.

The Court answered in the negative. The Court found that the meaning of RCW 4.22.070 is clear and unambiguous in that it generally abolishes joint and several liability for concurrent negligence.  In examining the legislative intent behind RCW 4.22.070, the Court stated that liability for breach of a nondelegable duty does not undermine the fault allocation under the statute. The Court noted that while the dissent correctly recognized an exception under the statute which would allow a nondelegable duty to result in vicarious liability for an independent contractor’s fault, the Court declined to apply this exception because the jury did not make a factual finding that that the Port retained control over the airlines’ work. The Court held that “[A]n entity that delegates its nondelegable duty will be vicariously liable for the negligence of the entity subject to its delegation, but an entity’s nondelegable duty cannot substitute for a factual determination of vicarious liability when RCW 4.22.070(1) clearly requires apportionment to “every entity which caused the claimant’s damages.””

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Soha and Lang, P.S. or its clients.

Posted by Rachel Rubin