Mar 22

Derek Chen

Washington Supreme Court Strengthens Intoxication Defense Statute; Utilizes "All Reasonable Interpretations" Approach to Ambiguous Admissions

by Derek Chen

           While requests for admission are sometimes seen as a formality, the Washington Supreme Court recently issued an En Banc decision re-emphasizing the dangers of such a belief.  In doing so, the Court (1) added a new way to establish the “under the influence of intoxicating liquor” prong of RCW 5.40.060 (also known as the “intoxication defense statute”) and (2) acknowledged the use of the “all reasonable interpretations” approach to determining ambiguous admissions relating to requests for admissions.

            In Peralta v. State of Washington, et al., --- P.3d ---, 2017 WL 639419 (Wash. Feb. 16, 2017), the Supreme Court held that the trial court’s decision to allow the use of the plaintiff’s pre-trial admission that she was “under the influence of intoxicating liquor” at the time of her incident to satisfy the first prong of the “intoxication defense statute” was not an abuse of discretion.  In Peralta, the plaintiff was struck by a Washington State Patrol officer after she mistook the vehicle for her brother’s car and stepped in front of it.  The officers who arrived to assist noted the plaintiff smelled like alcohol.  During discovery, Washington State Patrol sent the plaintiff a request for admission asking her to admit or deny whether “at the time of the collision that is the subject of this lawsuit, Deborah Peralta was under the influence of intoxicating liquors.”  The plaintiff responded with an unqualified, “Plaintiff admits.”

The “Intoxication Defense Statute”

            Under Washington law, the rarely-used intoxication defense statute provides a complete defense to a personal injury action when: the person injured was “under the influence of intoxicating liquor” at the time of the injury, the person’s intoxication was a proximate cause of their injuries, and the person injured was more than 50 percent at fault.  Prior to this decision, “under the influence of intoxicating liquor” was defined by RCW 46.61.502, which required (for alcohol) proving either (1) a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher within two hours after driving, or (2) the person is “under the influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor” while driving a vehicle.  In Peralta, the Court added another possible avenue available to satisfy the third prong: a response to a request for admission.

          Under CR 36, which governs requests for admissions, “any matter admitted … is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission.”  If a party is unable to admit or deny an answer fully, they must admit as much as possible and then qualify the remainder of their answer to the extent necessary.  After Peralta, there are two potential avenues to use a response to a request for admission to satisfy the first prong of the intoxication defense: (1) if it is unambiguous; or (2) after a case-specific analysis, it is ambiguous but can be reasonably interpreted in favor of the party seeking to use the admission.

          The Court in Peralta held that given the circumstances, the admission that plaintiff was “under the influence” was not ambiguous.  First, the language of the request for admission almost mirrored the language in the intoxication defense statute, which plaintiff’s counsel should have recognized.  Second, the purpose of the request was clearly to establish an affirmative defense, which Washington State Patrol had asserted in their Answer to the Complaint.  Therefore, the unqualified admission was permitted to satisfy the first prong of the intoxication defense statute.

Trial Courts Can Likely Use the “All Reasonable Interpretations” Approach to Ambiguous Requests for Admissions.

            While the Peralta Court found the admission was not ambiguous, they also stated that even if the admission was ambiguous, the trial court did not err in adopting the “all reasonable interpretations” approach over the more restrictive approach.

            There is an acknowledged split in how different state and federal courts handle “ambiguous” admissions.  One approach permits the jury to determine the effect of the admission.  The second approach, adopted by the trial court in Peralta and deemed acceptable by the Washington Supreme Court, establishes all reasonable interpretations as admitted subject to a successful motion to the Court to qualify or change the admission.

            The Washington Supreme Court did qualify their holding with “in this case,” making it unclear whether the “all reasonable interpretations” approach is appropriate for all cases, or just cases where the facts of a case make it fairly clear which interpretation the requesting party was referring to.  Either way, this case strengthens the argument that Washington has adopted the “all reasonable interpretations” approach to requests for admissions and should serve as a lesson and a reminder of the pitfalls surrounding requests for admission.  The Peralta court also provided another tool to try to establish the intoxication defense in appropriate cases.

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