We have previously discussed the process for appealing a mandatory arbitration award. (click here). Generally, at least in personal injury cases, appeals are initiated by the defense side, and not by plaintiffs. The likely reasons for that disparate pattern are suggested in the prior blog referenced above.
This blog will focus on one specific provision of a statutory amendment, enacted several years ago (effective September 1, 2018), of the mandatory arbitration appeal process – requiring that any party wishing to appeal a mandatory arbitration award personally sign the notice of appeal. That is, after the effective date of the amended rules, not just the appealing party's attorney can sign the appeal notice, but the actual appealing party themselves must sign it.
This significance of this subtle but obviously important procedural rule change was recently well-illustrated in a Court of Appeals, Division I, case, entitled Mangan v. Lamar, 18 Wn.App.2d 93, 496 P.3d 1223 (2021).
In that case, Cliff Mangum was the plaintiff. He was involved in two motor vehicle collisions and subsequently brought a personal injury action against the drivers of the other vehicles involved in those two crashes. His case went through mandatory arbitration, and an award was entered in his favor. Within 20 days thereafter, defense counsel for one of the defendants (a Mr. Sivaramakrishna Sundararaman) filed and served a request for an appeal. That was done by a pleading called a “request for trial de novo” (that is, a notice asking for a “do over” of the case, with a jury as fact finder).
However, the form submitted on Defendant Sundararaman's behalf was signed only by his counsel, not by the actual party defendant, Sivaramakrishna Sundararaman. Relying on the new procedural requirement of the mandatory arbitration appeal statute, Mr. Mangan's counsel brought a motion to strike the defense's trial de novo request, asserting it was defective because it lacked Mr. Sundararaman's own signature. A handwriting expert's affidavit accompanied the motion, stating the expert's opinion that the only signature on the appeal notice was not the signature of Mr. Sundararaman.
The trial court granted Mr. Mangan's motion to strike the defendant's trial de novo request. (The net effect of that trial court order, if not overturned, would cause the mandatory arbitration award previously entered to become binding.)
The order striking the trial de novo request was then appealed by Defendant Sundararaman to the Court of Appeals. Defendant Sundararaman asserted that the trial court had erred in failing to conclude that his counsel's request for trial de novo was sufficient because there had been “substantial compliance” with the de novo appeal notice requirements, apparently by virtue of simply having had his defense lawyer's signature on the document.
Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals, however, ruled against the defense, upholding the trial court's order denying the request for the new trial. The Court of Appeals' opinion noted that the trial court had examined the request for trial de novo and the handwriting expert's affidavit and confirmed that the actual party in interest had not signed the appeal notice; that only his defense counsel had. It noted that both RCW 7.06.050(1)(b) (the amended law as to how such appeals must be made) and SCCAR 7.1(b) (a corresponding court rule) expressly require that “the request for a trial de novo… must be signed by the party.” It concluded that the defense argument that there had supposedly been substantial compliance just wasn't persuasive. As the appellate court's written decision aptly noted in conclusion, “Noncompliance is not substantial compliance.”
Notably, Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion again in another case, on similar facts. See, Hanson v. Luna-Ramirez, 496 P.3d 314 (2021).
For years in representing plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits I have suspected that some defense attorneys would routinely file requests for new trials after a mandatory arbitration award, not because their actual clients wanted them to do so, but only because the defendant's insurance company had instructed them to do so. (Some insurance companies seem to like to protract litigation and try to wear down injured tort victims; thereby perhaps diminishing what they will have to pay out. In many instances – before the law was changed requiring a party's personal signature – the actual party defendants probably didn't even know that their lawyer was forcing an appeal of their case.)
So I for one am grateful for the recent amendments to the mandatory arbitration appeal process – and I am especially pleased to see that appellate courts (or at least Division I of the Court of Appeals) are requiring strict compliance with this new provision of the mandatory arbitration appeals process.