WA Supreme Court - Meth Chain of Custody Not Enough to Support Felony Payment Bar Through Possession
Very interesting case from the Washington Supreme Court. Normally, an injury while committing a felony is a bar to a labor and industries workers' compensation claim. But what happens when the potential felony has a myriad of chain of custody issues with the claimed possession? According to the Washington Supreme Court, this can, as a matter of law, preclude a felony payment bar defense.
In this case, Rowley was injured after his truck veered off an overpass and landed on the road below. A nurse believed she found a baggie on Rowley, but all items were trashed. After digging through a trash in another room in some clothes, a baggie was found with residue of meth amphetamine. No nurses could remember if Rowley was even wearing clothes at the time of arrival. No field sobriety test was able to be performed on Rowley because he was in a coma. The officer also testified he could not form an opinion as to whether Rowley was intoxicated by amphetamine use. Rowley's blood was mislabelled as "Rawley", but did test positive for methamphetamine.
Ultimately, the prosecutor did not charge Rowley with any felony.
The Department initially denied his claim, citing the felony payment bar. Reconsideration was denied, and an appeal to the Board was filed, evidence was presented, whereby the IAJ reversed the department order, finding the Department had not met a preponderance of the evidence standard to prove a felony.
A three member Board panel held the standard was actually higher, that the standard to prove the commission of a felony must come from clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed on this issue. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that the standard is laid out within the statute, and all evidence must come from a preponderance of the evidence standard (more likely than not).
The supreme court first looked to who had the burden of proving a felony. The Court of Appeals placed this burden on the Department, analogizing the felony bar to an affirmative defense, and noting the burden of affirmative defenses are the burden of the person asserting the defense. Oddly enough, this question had not yet been decided in Washington.
The supreme court took a different approach, noting that felony bar is essentially asserting that the Plaintiff was not within the course and scope of employment, and thus the burden could potentially remain on the claimant, as has been done with regard to the intentional injury bar. Oddly enough, lack of proximate cause and lack of course and scope of employment are affirmative defenses under tort law as well, and the logic behind differentiating them within worker's compensation was not entirely clear. Even after stating it was not to be analogized to an affirmative defense, the supreme court ultimately held the burden is on the Department to prove the felony payment bar applied. However, they did so on the logic that a claimant should not be required to prove a negative; the department must come forward with some evidence first in order to require a rebuttal from the claimant. To hold otherwise would require the courts to presume a felony bar in all cases unless proven otherwise.
Next, the court looked to what must be shown to even appeal the department's order. The Department attempted to state that the claimant must show some aspect of the initial department order was incorrect to appeal. However, the court noted that simply arguing the evidence was insufficient to make a finding against the claimant is sufficient, as long as the claimant has shown a prima facia case of injury in the course of employment. The appellant of the original order need not come forward with new evidence to refute the Department's initial determination.
Finally, the court then looked to how that must be proved. The Board held the standard to prove the commission of a felony must come from clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed on this issue. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that the standard is laid out within the statute, and all evidence must come from a preponderance of the evidence standard (more likely than not). There was nothing supporting application of a heightened standard to the felony payment bar.
After looking to the standards, the court then looked to whether the evidence supported commission of a felony in this case. Here, there was a pretty good case that Rowley had committed a misdemeanor, DUI. DUI can, with other evidence, support prior possession. However, that is all we have here. The nurses in the ER could not remember what the clothes looked like, and the baggie recovered from the trash was in another room. Though the baggie tested positive, there was not, as a matter of law, enough to show he was in possession at the time of his truck leaving the roadway.
The issue I have with this opinion has to do with the court deciding as a matter of law the evidence was insufficient. This seems like a pretty borderline case, given the chain of events, to be weighing the evidence on appeal. A better method would have been to rely on the IAJ's findings on appeal, giving the deference to the finder of fact. C'est la vie!