Curtin v. City of E. Wenatchee , Nos. 36209-4-III, 36210-8-III, 2020 Wash. App. LEXIS 264 (Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2020)
Issues: (1) Are pre-majority medical expenses (damages for medical expenses incurred prior to
one’s eighteenth birthday) only recoverable by a minor’s parents, since the parents are financially
responsible for the minor’s care and maintenance? NO. (2) Does the tolling provision in Wash.
Rev. Code § 4.16.190, which pauses the statute of limitations until a minor attains the age of
competency to bring claims on his or her own behalf, permit a parent or guardian to “bootstrap”
their own untimely claim to the minor’s claim? NO.
Facts: Plaintiffs Jennifer Curtin and her parents sued Defendants City of East Wenatchee and Leo
Agnes for personal injuries sustained by Jennifer while she was a minor, seeking compensation for
pre-majority medical expenses. The suit was filed more than three years after Jennifer was injured,
but within three years of her eighteenth birthday. The parties agreed that Jennifer’s claim was
timely because RCW 4.16.080(2) and RCW 4.16.190 had tolled her claim until she reached
eighteen years of age. However, Defendants moved for summary judgment on the parents’ claims,
arguing that: (1) only the parents had standing to bring a claim for pre-majority medical expenses,
and (2) their claims were time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations. The trial court agreed
and granted summary judgment dismissal.
Holdings: Washington’s Court of appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling that Jennifer lacked
standing to assert a claim for pre-majority medical expenses. The Court of Appeals held that a the
injured minor may sue to recover any damages, including pre-majority medical expenses, after
reaching the age of competence. However, in such a circumstance, a principle of de facto
emancipation applies and the parents are not able to come to court and claim the same expenses. As
a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of Jennifer’s parents’ claim. The Court held that
RCW 4.16.190 is not meant to permit a parent or guardian who has failed to take timely action to
“bootstrap” their own otherwise untimely claim to the minor or disabled person’s claim.
Discussion: In deciding whether a child could recover pre-majority medical expenses, the Court of
Appeals relied on McAllister v. Saginaw Timber Co., 171 Wash. 448, 451 (1933), which held that
medical expenses are legal “necessaries” to which both parents and children hold equal rights and
responsibilities. However, this shared right to pre-majority medical expenses does not allow for
double recovery. Consequently, if a minor recovers certain expenses, a de facto emancipation will
apply and the parents will not be able to come to court and claim the same expenses.
In determining that the parents claim was untimely, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the tolling
provision of RCW 4.16.190 is “person” specific and only applies to those who meet the statute’s
criteria – individuals who are disabled or under the age of 18. As a result, it does not toll the claims
of competent parents. The purpose of a statute of limitation is to “compel prompt litigation.”
Stenberg, 104 Wn.2d at 721. It is reasonable to require a competent adult to take prompt action
once they become aware of the basis for a legal claim. Doing so ensures a dispute will be resolved
while evidence is accessible and memories are fresh. It also frees potential defendants of fears
about “litigation unlimited by time.”
Briefing by Marlene Otero, an Associate Attorney in HWS Law Group ’s Seattle
Of ice. Marlene is licensed to practice in Washington.