In deciding a Pierce County case, the state Supreme Court has ruled that bail bond companies sometimes can be sued for the negligent actions of bounty hunters subcontracted to capture fugitives.
The case arose out of a 2004 lawsuit brought by Larry Stout, who lost a leg after a bounty hunter rammed his car from behind while trying to capture Stout in July 2002.
Stout at the time was charged with drug crimes and had skipped at least two court hearings. He later pleaded guilty and as a first-time offender got treatment and fines instead of jail.
CJ Johnson Bail Bonds, which had posted Stout’s $50,000 bail, hired a company run by Michael Golden to bring Stout in, court records state. Golden passed the job on to bounty hunter Carl Warren, the records state.
Warren was at the wheel of the 1977 Chevrolet pickup that forced Stout’s Toyota Corolla off a gravel road and into a tree, court records show.
Stout later sued CJ Johnson, Golden and Warren, contending their negligence resulted in his injuries.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle dismissed CJ Johnson and Golden as defendants, ruling they were not “vicariously liable” for Warren’s actions. In 2009, Felnagle signed a $6 million judgment against Warren.
Stout appealed the dismissal of CJ Johnson to the state Court of Appeals, which upheld Felnagle’s ruling.
Appellate attorney Andrew Helland of Tacoma then took the case to the Supreme Court.
In a 6-3 decision announced Thursday, the state’s high court reversed the decisions by Felnagle and the Court of Appeals.
Washington contract law generally protects companies from being sued for the actions of their contractors and subcontractors. The majority took up a narrow exception to that law in finding in Stout’s favor.
In an opinion written by Justice Debra Stephens, the majority said that the business of fugitive apprehension “poses a peculiar risk of harm.”
“First, there is a risk that the force that the bail bond recovery agent is authorized to employ will be exercised in a negligent or reckless manner causing physical harm,” Stephens wrote. “Second, there is a risk that the bail bond recovery agent’s negligent actions will cause the fugitive defendant to respond in a manner that causes physical harm to others.”
As such, a bail bond company such as CJ Johnson could be held liable for the negligence of an independent contractor, Stephens said in an opinion signed by justices Barbara Madsen, Tom Chambers, Mary Fairhurst, Charles Wiggins and Steven Gonzalez.
Justice Susan Owens wrote a dissent that was signed by justices James Johnson and Charles Johnson.
Owens wrote that Stout was not an innocent third party hurt by the negligent actions of a bounty hunter, but, in a sense, brought his injuries on himself by remaining a fugitive instead of turning himself in.
“The record clearly establishes that Larry Stout was very aware of the peculiar risk of harm inherent in fugitive defendant apprehension,” she wrote. “Several months before the incident, Stout had been apprehended by two bail bond recovery agents who broke down his door and entered with guns drawn. One of those agents was Carl Warren.
“Because he created the circumstances that necessitated fugitive recovery, Stout was actually a source of the peculiar risk.”
The majority’s decision sends the case back to Superior Court for trial.