On Friday, February 17, 2017, partner Scott Edwards and co-founder Craig Schauermann--who is currently Of Counsel to the Schauermann Thayer firm--presented alongside local attorney Bill Robison to Clark County Washington State Association for Justice (WSAJ) members on the topic of joint and several liability.
For over 20 years, the lawyers at Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards PS, have been EAGLE members of WSAJ. WSAJ fights to strengthen the civil justice system for all of Washington's citizens. It opposes efforts to weaken basic legal protections which, if enacted, would further stack the deck against injured persons. Like WSAJ, the Schauermann Thayer firm believes in the fundamental principle that everyone in our society should be equal in the courts of law--extra protections and advantages should not be given to the rich and powerful or to large corporations or governments.
As EAGLE members of WSAJ we help fund the organization's legislative and public affairs efforts which protect us all. Thanks to these funds, WSAJ has one of the most experienced and respected lobbying teams in the state. As evidenced by the event on Friday, our firm also tries to stay as involved in WSAJ as possible. Partner Scott Edwards was elected to and continues to serve on the WSAJ Board of Governors. Associate Brad Thayer is the Vice Chair of the WSAJ Roundtable Committee in Clark County (a position previously held by partner Scott Staples). And, as recently as last year, the firm took part in WSAJ's Trial Lawyers Care event in Clark County.
Over the years, WSAJ has overcome repeated attempts to pass legislation that would have further eroded the rights of injured people and has helped defeat proposals to cap damages and eliminate joint and several liability.
Joint and several liability was the particular topic covered by Craig, Scott and Bill at Friday's presentation.
Understanding joint and several liability means first understanding comparative negligence. If an injured plaintiff is found to be negligent in causing his or her own injuries (along with the defendant or defendants), then he or she is guilty of “comparative negligence.” That plaintiff's overall damages are reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff's negligence (if the plaintiff is 50 percent at fault for his or her own injuries, he or she gets 50 percent of his or her damages).
When a plaintiff is found to be 1 percent or more negligent, “joint and several” liability doesn't even enter the discussion. Liability is “several” only, meaning that each of multiple defendants is only responsible for their own, respective percentage share (as found by the jury) of the plaintiff's damages. If the plaintiff's share of 100 percent of the negligence that caused the injuries is 10 percent, one defendant's share was 80 percent, and another defendant's share is 10 percent, then the 10 percent defendant is only responsible for 10 percent. The 80 percent defendant is responsible for 80 percent. If the 10 percent defendant had a large insurance policy or huge assets to satisfy the judgment, and the 80 percent defendant had a minimal insurance policy and no assets, the 10 percent defendant still only pays 10 percent, and good luck to the injured plaintiff recovering 80 percent of his or her damages from the 80 percent defendant who has little to offer. This is the default approach in Washington where multiple parties cause injury.
However, a statute in Washington--RCW 4.22.070--sets out that joint and several liability may be achieved where an injured person is fault-free, i.e., not guilty of comparative negligence. When this is the case, an injured person did not cause their own injury and who takes a judgment against all the other parties who did cause the injuries, can collect 100 percent of the damages they suffered from any one of the at-fault parties. So in the prior example, substituting in zero percent for plaintiff's negligence, the 10 percent defendant with the large insurance policy or assets will be responsible to the plaintiff for the entire amount of the damages. That defendant can pursue the (in this example) 90 percent defendant for their fair share, but that impossible problem is now in the lap of the co-wrongdoer instead of the innocent injured person.
This can be a critical tool in helping ensure that injured persons found to be fault-free are fully compensated in the wake of injury, placing the burden on those who caused the injuries, regardless of their percentages of fault.