Negligence of spouse cannot be imputed to the other spouse

Posted Thursday, November 10, 2016 by Ed Harper

Negligence of one spouse cannot be imputed to the other spouse.Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 11.04.01 states the following: “Negligence, if any, of one spouse or domestic partner is not imputed or charged to the other spouse or domestic partner.” WPI 11.04.01.In the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 4.22.020 states in essence that the contributory fault (being partially responsible) of one spouse shall not be imputed to the other spouse. The Plaintiff’s claims should not be diminished and should be allowed to recover their full damages. More specifically, “The contributory fault of one spouse shall not be imputed to the other spouse…to recover damages caused by fault resulting in death or in injury to the person or property, whether separate or community, of the spouse.”The key phrase in this statute is “shall not be imputed”. This disallows any consideration for the imputation of liability onto the fault free plaintiff. Where this comes into play is for personal injury claims such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, are all considered to be separate and independent causes of action for the injured person. This has not always been the case as in the past the common law concept was that the wife’s legal identity merged with her husband. “Modernly, however, the law recognizes the separate legal identities of the spouse, and one person’s contributory negligence will not be imputed to another merely on the basis of the marital relationship.” Vasey v. Snohomish County, 44 Wn.App 83, 88 (1986). As the general rule is that the plaintiff’s action for damages should not be reduced by the negligence of third persons. Thus, this is merely an extension of the general rule, and allows a spouse to recover 100% of their independent damages. Therefore, in Vasey, the wife had settled her claim against her husband for a one-car accident wherein he had driven his car off the road. The wife’s allegation at trial was merely against the county for improper sign placement and maintenance issues. The court awarded her damages, and the county was deemed to be 20% at fault for the damages and the husband was 80% at fault. The wife in this case could recover from the county all of her damages, and her claims would not be reduced by her husband’s % of responsibility. In short, all of her separate property claims would be honored and not be reduced due to the negligence of the at-fault, negligent spouse.
Additionally, in the case of Christie v. Maxwell, 40 Wn.App. 40 (1985), even loss of consortium claims are deemed to be separate and independent in nature for the injured spouse. “Under the law in this state, Mrs. Christie is an individual with separate legal rights which arise independent of her identity as a member of the Christie martial community. Yet there would be no injury to her consortium rights without the accompanying physical injury to her spouse and the existence of the marital relationship…While we may feel that it is basically unfair to allow Mrs. Christie 100 percent recovery from Mr. Maxwell where her husband was 62.5 percent contributorily negligent, we are constrained by our interpretation of RCW 4.22.020 and the rules of statutory construction from reducing her damages 62.5 percent.” Christie, at 48.

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