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November 2018

Judge Agrees with Seattle Gordon & Rees Lawyers that Wrongful Death and Elder Abuse Lawsuit Against Client should be Dismissed

Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani Seattle Partner Neal J. Philip and Associate Goldie A. Davidoff recently achieved a great result for the firm's client in a wrongful death and elder abuse case, persuading the trial court that all claims against their client, a court-appointed guardian for an elderly and mentally disabled woman, should be dismissed on summary judgment. The children of the deceased were seeking millions of dollars in damages in the lawsuit, including special and general damages, certain punitive damages allowed under Washington law, and attorney fees and costs.

The case arose when the guardian’s ward, who suffered from schizophrenia and dementia, “eloped” from the adult family home where she was living in July of 2015.  She had been left unsupervised by the staff at the home at the time of this final elopement.  Although there was a search and the media published her picture in an attempt to locate her, she was not found at that time.  Her body was found in a nearby park about a month later; the Coroner could not determine the cause of death.

The decedent’s estate/children brought a wrongful death action against the adult family home, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), and the guardian for negligence, violation of the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act, and the tort of Outrage. The claim against the guardian was that she should have done more to place the decedent in a more secure home following an earlier elopement several days earlier.  At the time of that elopement the owner asked DSHS and the guardian to find the decedent a new placement, which they were unable to accomplish before the final elopement.

Philip and Davidoff moved for summary judgment on behalf of the guardian. They first argued that claim preclusion, otherwise known as res judicata, operated to preclude the children’s claims because the guardian had been discharged at the final guardianship hearing shortly after decedent’s death, and the children were represented at that hearing and made the same arguments they were making in their subsequent lawsuit. They also argued that RCW 11.92.053 was essentially a codified version of claim preclusion in the guardianship context and that statute precluded the children’s claims as well.

Their second argument was that the judge should conclude that all of the guardian’s conduct was reasonable because everything that could have been done to find a new placement for the decedent had been done prior to the final elopement.  Thus they argued that the judge should conclude the guardian was not negligent as a matter of law.  

The guardian’s Motion for Summary Judgment was opposed by each of the other three parties in the lawsuit.  Following oral argument, the judge concluded that the issues were too factual to support a conclusion that the guardian’s actions justified a ruling that she was not negligent as a matter of law.  The judge was also not convinced that claim preclusion necessarily applied.  However, she concluded that the Washington statute used a slightly different standard than the standard required by claim preclusion and granted the Motion for Summary Judgment for that reason, dismissing all claims against a very happy Gordon & Rees client.

Neal J. Philip