(CN) - A Washington appeals court has revived negligence claims by the widow of an 84-year-old juror who died of hypothermia near the courthouse steps because he could not find his car.
Kay Mita reported for jury duty at the Spokane County Superior Court on a very cold day in November 2007.
The temperature outside was 23 degrees with a wind chill of 17 degrees.
At noon, the judge dismissed the jury panel with instructions to return at 2 p.m.
Mita, who was 84, did not return, however, and his wife, Shizuko, said she did not know where he was when the jury manager called.
When the courtroom clerk spotted Mita at 5 p.m. in the parking lot and asked why he did not return to the jury room, Mita said he had been looking for his car, which was covered in snow.
All day, Mita had been wearing only corduroy slacks and a light jacket.
Upon the clerk's suggestion, Mita returned to the courthouse. A security officer saw Mita enter the courthouse and sit down next to a heater at 5:10 p.m., but the guards ushered Mita outside 20 minutes later and locked the doors.
At about 7 p.m. security saw Mita peering through the main doors. Thinking he was homeless, the guards let him inside to sit by the heater. Mita was shaking and unable to communicate intelligibly.
Security had to lock up the courthouse for the night at 9 p.m., however, and told Mita that he had to leave.
His wife had reported him missing at 7 p.m., but the Spokane Crime Reporting Center (SCRC) never transmitted the missing persons report to the police so no officer ever searched for him.
Mita died that night of hypothermia, slumped against a trash can near the front steps of the courthouse. When he was found, he was covered in two inches of snow.
A county judge dismissed the family's wrongful death suit, finding that neither Spokane nor the security agency, Guardsmark, owed Mita a duty of care.
Reversing Tuesday, a three-judge panel with the Washington Court of Appeals said the SCRC's alleged promise to send an officer to search for Mita establishes a duty.
"Whether SCRC made the promise is, of course, a material fact left for further summary judgment proceedings or trial," Judge Stephen Brown wrote for the court. "Our focus is on whether the facts viewed most favorably to the Mitas raise a legal duty under the voluntary rescue doctrine and a special relationship, and we conclude under our standard of review that they do."
Guardsmark security also should have known that sending a helpless elderly man, underdressed for subzero weather, into the night snow imperiled his safety.
"By bringing [Kay Mita] inside the locked courthouse and seating him next to the heater for two hours, Guardsmark took charge of Kay, intending to assist him in confronting the peril," Brown wrote. "But after successfully removing Kay from this peril, Guardsmark put him back outside the locked courthouse into the same peril, or into a new one. Arguably, doing so left Kay in a worse situation than before and increased the risk of harm to him because, in his seemingly confused and bewildered state, the assistance misled Kay into believing Guardsmark had removed the danger and meanwhile deprived him of an opportunity to seek help outside the locked courthouse."
The court declined to rule on whether Mita's death was foreseeable, leaving the trial court to further develop the record.