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Thursday, January 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire's office admits error in costly wrongful-death suit

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — The state's lawyers made a mistake in defending against a wrongful-death lawsuit that resulted in a record $22.4 million judgment, the Attorney General's Office admits.

The lawyers failed to read the jury instructions proposed by attorneys for the family of Paula Joyce, a Tacoma woman who was killed when a felon under the state's supervision crashed a stolen car into her truck.

"It sort of slipped by everybody," Michael Tardif, a senior assistant attorney general, told The News Tribune of Tacoma.

"There's really no reason to read it. You don't count on the other side submitting something false. Maybe this case would teach you that you should."

The state's lawyers later discovered that the instructions contained an error that may have made it easier for the jury to rule against the state.

The state is appealing the judgment on several grounds, including the jury instructions.

The instructions told jurors they needed to find whether the state had acted negligently, Joyce had been injured or the defendant's actions had caused Joyce's injuries. They should have required the jury to determine that all three conditions existed to find the state liable.

The jury found the state responsible in all three areas anyway, said Darrell Cochran, one of the Joyce family's lawyers. Cochran said the faulty instructions were a clerical error.

"The state tries to make it seem like something sinister in order to get itself off the hook for not reviewing jury instructions just like everyone is supposed to do," Cochran said.

The Legislature is set to examine large settlements the state has paid in recent years and how to reduce the state's exposure to them. The state Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing today on the issue.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Washington paid $85.4 million in settlements and court-ordered verdicts, more than three times what it had paid in any year before that.

The mistake is the second Attorney General Christine Gregoire's office has made in a major case in recent years. In 2000, state lawyers missed a deadline to appeal a case in which a jury awarded $17.8 million to the families of three developmentally disabled men who were abused in a state- licensed adult family home in Bremerton.

Phil Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice who has advised the state Department of Corrections on how to prevent future large verdicts, said the state probably can't appeal the error because it didn't object to the instructions during the trial.

The state attorneys involved in the case weren't reprimanded, Tardif said, because they should not have been expected to read the other side's jury instructions. The plaintiff's proposal was marked "WPI," meaning it was taken out of the "Washington Pattern Instructions," a standard set of jury instructions approved for use in Washington courts, Tardif said.

The instructions are only one of several arguments the state has made on appeal. A bigger issue may be that the felon, Valdez Stewart, was under state supervision for domestic violence, not to oversee his driving, Tardif said.

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