Vancouver woman hit by trooper wins suit

State law makes her ineligible to collect $500,000

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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A state law meant to curtail damage awards in civil lawsuits may prevent a Vancouver woman from collecting more than $500,000 for injuries she sustained in August 2009 when a Washington State Patrol trooper struck her with his patrol car.

A Clark County jury on Friday awarded Deborah R. Peralta, 25, the equivalent of about $529,000 after determining that Trooper Ryan W. Tanner was partially negligent in the Aug. 22, 2009, vehicle-pedestrian collision in Hazel Dell. The jury assigned 42 percent of the blame to Tanner and 58 percent to Peralta, based partially on an emergency room blood test that showed she was legally intoxicated at the time. Her attorneys, Don Jacobs of Vancouver and Mike Bloom of Portland, dispute that finding. They plan to appeal the verdict later this fall.

On the night of the collision, Peralta had been drinking alcohol at a party, Jacobs said. She left the party on foot and then called her brother to give her a ride home. Her brother had trouble finding her and called her cellphone to find out more details about her location. During the conversation, Peralta told her brother that she saw his car. Still unable to spot her, he asked her to step into the roadway so that he could see her. She did as he asked, stepping into the westbound lane of traffic on 78th Street near the intersection of Anderson Road. The vehicle she thought belonged to her brother was actually Tanner's patrol car. Tanner didn't see her in time and struck her with his vehicle, Jacobs said.

Product of tort reform

State law — a product of tort reform in 1986 — says that if a person is injured as a result of being intoxicated and a jury finds that the injured person was more than 50 percent at fault, they are not eligible for damages. Peralta plans to appeal the verdict based on a June 2012 decision by former Superior Court Judge John Wulle to exclude testimony by a toxicology expert hired by the plaintiff's attorneys who said there was an error in Peralta's blood test. The test found that Peralta had a blood alcohol level of 0.167; the legal limit is 0.08.

"We do contest that she was legally intoxicated," Jacobs said. "That's the basis for our appeal."

Jacobs said stepping into the roadway to flag down her brother who couldn't see her also "was a decision she would have made sober."

He said some residents near the accident site testified that they didn't see the patrol car's headlights illuminated at the time of the accident. The state denies that allegation, said Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office.

"The state relied both on Ms. Peralta's emergency room toxicology report and the expert testimony of Dr. Tack Lam, who conducted an independent analysis of the report to determine Ms. Peralta's blood alcohol level was between (one and one-half) and two times the legal limit of 0.08.," Guthrie said.

The accident left Peralta with a traumatic brain injury and shoulder and leg injuries, Jacobs said.

She now works as a manager at a coffeehouse and still has short-term memory loss from her brain injury, he said.

The jury of 12 reached the verdict after a two-week trial in front of Superior Court Judge David Gregerson. The trial included testimony from several experts from both sides.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com