Court of Appeals: Div. III – First High Court Analysis of Venue Statute for Personal Injury Cases
This case is purely a venue question: where is the action proper; King County or Yakima County? There is a good analysis of RCW 4.12.020 in this case, which statute was changed in 2001. Previously this statute allowed plaintiffs in “motor vehicle accidents” to bring suit in the county where the accident happened or in the county where the defendant resided. The Legislature changed the statute to expand it to all types of injuries and not just those that arise out of motor vehicle accidents. Flateau v. Moore:
In 2004, Flateau contracted to sell his motorcycle modification business to Moore. Two documents outlined the agreement. The first sold the business while the second provided that Flateau would work for Moore. Neither document provided a venue provision, although the sales contract provided that disputes be resolved in Seattle via arbitration. All notices in the contracts provided they be sent to Moore in Yakima and Flateau in Redmond.
In February 2008, Moore sent notice to Flateau at a Bothell address that he was terminating the contracts. Flateau responded demanding that Moore stop breaching the contract. Two days later Moore filed suit in Yakima County for breach of contract and a “tort of promissory estoppel,” however the complaint was not immediately served on Flateau. Flateau then filed suit in King County against Moore for breach of the two contracts. Moore then notified Flateau that he had already filed suit in Yakima County and he moved to dismiss the King County action. The King County Superior Court dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction because the Yakima County action had been filed first. However, on reconsideration, King County vacated the dismissal upon the parties’ stipulation that either county would be appropriate to resolve the disputes depending on the outcome of a pending motion to change venue in Yakima County.
Yakima County then denied Flateau’s motion to change venue, finding that it was unclear where Mr. Flateau lived. The Yakima court also found that at least a portion of the claim arose in Yakima County because it involved damage to personal property. Discretionary review was granted by the Court of Appeals.
Flateau’s argument was that the alleged damages of the suit were economic in nature and thus he is entitled to be sued in his home county under the general venue statute.
RCW 4.12.030 provides grounds for which a court may change venue. Subsection (1) provides that venue may be changed when the complaint is not brought in the proper county. The succeeding subsections provide for change of venue in other circumstances such as the convenience of the witnesses, the ends of justice, and judicial disqualification. RCW 4.12.030(2), (3), (4).
The Court of Appeals determined that Sections 2 thru 4 of RCW 4.12.030 allowed a court to make a discretionary decision, thus an abuse of discretion review, but that Section 1 was a legal question that is reviewed de novo. RCW 4.12.025 provides that venue is proper where the defendant resides or any one defendant resides and provides for corporation venue as well. RCW 4.12.020 provides that actions involving damages “for injuries to the person or for injury to personal property” shall be brought were the action arose, but gives the plaintiff the option of bringing the action in the county where the defendant resides at the time of the commencement of the action. The quoted language is new as of 2001 and has not been defined by any court.
Moore contended that since he worked in Yakima County and there was damage to his “personal property” (his business), that Yakima County was the proper venue. So this came down to what is “personal property.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “[a]ny movable or intangible thing that is subject to ownership and not classified as real property.” Without any guidance from the Legislature (imagine that), the Court turned to the underlying facts in the case. Since this was a breach of contract claim and thus about economic damages, the court concluded that this case was not about “injury to personal property.” Thus Yakima County was not a proper venue. So all of this work just to determine which court will hear the dispute. Is King County Superior Court that much better than Yakima County Superior Court? No comment. You never know when you might wind up there!