Washington Premises Liability Defendant Bound by Agreement to Accept Responsibility

Washington personal injury cases generally hinge on proving the defendant’s negligence.  A recent case, however, turned on contract law.  In this unusual case, the court had to determine if a defendant was bound by its agreement to accept responsibility for the condition of a parking lot after learning the accident did not occur on its property.

According to the appeal court’s opinion, the plaintiff was injured when he hit a pothole while riding his bicycle in a parking lot.  He notified the realty company that owned the shopping complex property and Wal-Mart, which had a store in the shopping center.

The realty company sent a letter to Wal-Mart stating Wal-Mart was responsible for maintaining the parking lot.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a claim with Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart denied the claim, stating its investigation found no negligence on Wal-Mart’s part.

The plaintiff then sued both the realty company and Wal-Mart, alleging one or both “owned, operated, and maintained” the parking lot and that they negligently maintained it.  During discovery, Wal-Mart’s attorney told the plaintiff’s attorney Wal-Mart accepted “full responsibility for the condition of the parking lot.”  Wal-Mart’s attorney sent a letter stating that, without admitting liability, Wal-Mart accepted “full responsibility for the condition of the parking lot…” It also stated there was no need for the plaintiff’s attorney to attempt to serve or pursue the other defendant.  It further stated that “Wal-Mart was responsible for repair and maintenance of the parking lot…”

The court entered a non-compliance order stating the realty company had not filed an answer.  Wal-Mart’s attorney sent another letter requesting the plaintiff drop the claims against the realty company.  The court granted the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the claims against that defendant.

After the plaintiff’s deposition, Wal-Mart’s attorney tried to rescind the agreement. Wal-Mart moved for summary judgment, arguing it could rescind the agreement due to the unilateral mistake.  It argued it had justifiably assumed the accident occurred on its property because the plaintiff sued Wal-Mart and the description in the complaint matched Wal-Mart’s property.

The plaintiff argued he was not responsible for the mistake and that Wal-Mart conducted an independent investigation before accepting responsibility.

The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment.  The plaintiff appealed.

In Washington, a party may rescind an agreement due to unilateral mistake if it shows there was a mistake as to the basic assumption it relied on to make the agreement.  It must show it would not have entered into the agreement if it had been aware of the mistake.  Additionally, the party must also show either that enforcement would be unconscionable or that the other party knew of, had reason to know of, or caused the mistake.  Furthermore, the rescinding party cannot bear the risk of the mistake.

The court found the record showed Wal-Mart mistakenly believed the plaintiff’s accident occurred on the property it leased and that it would not have agreed to accept responsibility if it had known otherwise.

The plaintiff argued, however, that Wal-Mart had not shown he knew of, had reason to know of, or caused the mistake.  He reported the accident to both defendants and submitted his claim to Wal-Mart after being copied on a letter stating the realty company found Wal-Mart was responsible.

The only evidence Wal-Mart cited to support its argument was a diagram attached to its lease.  However, Wal-Mart first provided the diagram with its motion for summary judgment.  The appeals court found Wal-Mart had not shown the plaintiff knew about or caused the mistake.

The court also found Wal-Mart bore the risk of the mistake.  A party bears risk of a mistake if there is an agreement that the party bears the risk.  A party may also bear the risk if he knows when the agreement is made that his knowledge of the facts is limited, but treats that knowledge as sufficient.  Additionally, a party may bear the risk if the court allocates the risk to him.  The appeals court found Wal-Mart agreed to accept responsibility based on its own investigation and that of the realty company shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

Wal-Mart also argued enforcing the agreement would be unconscionable.  Even if enforcement would otherwise be unconscionable, it may be proper if the other party relied on the mistake.  Here, the plaintiff relied on Wal-Mart’s agreement to accept responsibility when he dismissed his claim against the other defendant.  The appeals court therefore found it would not be unconscionable to enforce the agreement and reversed the summary judgment and remanded to the trial court.

This is an unusual case that shows that a defendant may be bound by an agreement to accept responsibility for the condition of premises, even if it would not have otherwise been responsible.  If you have been hurt on someone else’s property, an experienced Washington premises liability attorney can help you identify the appropriate defendant and seek the compensation you deserve.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.

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