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In a blow to efforts by plaintiffs to hold the Washington state Department of Corrections (DOC) liable for the actions of released offenders, a state appellate court has reversed a $15 million verdict to the family of a woman who was raped and murdered. The family of Yoshiko Couch contended that the department had failed properly to supervise Cecil Davis, an ex-convict who had previously been imprisoned for attacking a couple with an ice pick. But, on Sept. 20, Washington’s Division II Court of Appeals found that Yoshiko Couch’s family did not have a viable cause of action because Davis was on minimal supervision at the time of the Couch murder. The decision was a rare win for the DOC, which had been hit in recent years with several judgments — including verdicts of $15 million and $22.4 million and settlements of $2.8 million, $4 million and $8.8 million — over claims that department personnel had breached a duty to supervise released felons. The reversal will not have an effect on other lawsuits against the department, said plaintiffs’ attorney Darrell Cochran of Tacoma, Wash.’s Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Daheim. The ruling was “extremely narrow,” and will cover only the Couch lawsuit, he contended. The decision may have an impact on other such litigation, countered DOC risk management attorney Gary Andrews. “The court of appeals has recognized that in situations where our ability and authority is limited by law there is no duty” to prevent a future crime, he said. The Couch lawsuit was in response to the rape and murder of Yoshiko Couch in January 1997. Couch, 65, was attacked and killed in her own home by Davis, an ex-convict who had been suspected of two other rapes and at least one murder, said plaintiffs’ counsel John R. Connelly Jr. of Gordon Thomas. Davis was convicted of murder and is now on death row, according to Connelly. Following the murder, the Couch family sued the state. Couch v. Washington State Department of Corrections, No. 99-2-11902-4 (Pierce Co., Wash., Super. Ct.). The lack of supervision, Connelly charged, started soon after Davis was released from prison after serving his sentence on the ice-pick assault count. Davis had been placed on community supervision, but that ended after one year, and he was then assigned to the offender minimum management unit and placed on legal financial obligation supervision, which means the payment of restitution. Before the end of trial in 2000, Judge Frederick Hayes determined that the department owed a duty to supervise Davis and control or deter his criminal behavior. The jury then awarded $15 million. The state appealed, contending that it could not have prevented the crime and that its actions were not a proximate cause of Couch’s death. The appeals court agreed. It set aside the verdict and dismissed the Couch action. The department did not owe a duty of care to prevent future crimes, the court said. Even if the offender did not pay the restitution on schedule, the court found, the department had limited control or responsibility over him.

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