An interesting holding and some confusing dicta from the Court of Appeals in Schorno v. Kannada (Division 2, May 1, 2012). But first, the facts: Amy Schorno is an adult — a married woman with a husband and children. Kevin Kannada was a kid 14 to 18 years old during the relevant period. The “relevant period” is so defined because during that time Kannada and Schorno engaged in sexual conduct, the nature of which is in dispute.
According to Schorno, when Kannada was 14 he attempted to kiss Schorno in her garage. She resisted and threatened to tell her husband. Kannada told her that if she did so, he would say that she initiated the kiss and that, because of his allegations, she would no longer be able to see her children. These sorts of threats continued, along with physical threats and actual force — hitting, choking, and threats to kill her, her husband, and her dog. Schorno therefore claimed that she was forced to continue a sexual relationship with Kannada for the next four years.
Kannada offered a version of events. He claimed that Schorno initiated the sexual relationship and therefore “groomed” him for sexual abuse. Under this theory, Schorno, through her actions, deprived Kannada of the ability to understand that the sexual conduct was wrong and therefore conditioned and/or desensitized him to the abuse.
Based on these divergent versions of events, the parties claimed and counterclaimed against each other. Schorno sued Kannada for assault, battery, defamation, outrage, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Kannada sued Schorno for child sexual abuse based on sexual conduct before he turned 16.
Kannada moved for partial summary judgment on liability for childhood sexual abuse, arguing that he could “establish tort liability simply by showing a violation of a criminal statute.” In an attempt to avoid issues of fact, Kannada limited his motion to sexual conduct that occurred “before he began using force and threats of force” against Schorno. The trial court granted Kannada’s motion.
The Court of Appeals reversed. It observed that RCW 4.16.340 provides a statute of limitations for claims “based on” intentional childhood sexual abuse, with reference to the relevant criminal statutes. However, this statute does not create an independent strict liability civil cause of action for childhood sexual abuse. Rather, it merely provides a statute of limitations “where the gravamen of the action is childhood sexual abuse” — such as medical malpractice or negligence or the like. It does not, however, create a separate cause of action for childhood sexual abuse apart from the generally recognized tort causes of action. Accordingly, to succeed on his claim, Kannada needed to show more than simply a violation of a criminal statute mentioned in RCW 4.16.340 — he needed to prove all the elements of some actual tort. Because the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment was predicated on a strict liability-based theory of criminal liability, the Court of Appeals reversed.
So that’s the holding. Fine. The Court of Appeals, however, then went on to talk about how partial summary judgment would have been inappropriate even under the a proper conception of Kannada’s claim because his “counterclaims are heavily intertwined” with Schorno’s claims. This, apparently, is an impediment to summary judgment. Because the two claims were “inextricably intertwined,” when the trial court “purported to enter only partial summary judgment on Kannada’s claim, it effectively resolved both Kannada’s claims and Schorno’s claims in Kannada’s favor.” According to the Court of Appeals, “[t]his was inappropriate because numerous issues of material fact remain as to what occurred between the parties and who was responsible.”
Right. There were “numerous issues of material fact” remaining, so that and that alone should be sufficient to defeat summary judgment. But who cares of the claims and counterclaims are “intertwined”? Unless there are material facts in dispute, then I would think that even “intertwined” claims can be resolved on summary judgment. And whose to say that the resolution of Kannada’s claim in his favor necessarily also resolves Schorno’s claim in Kannada’s favor? I suspect that, if Kannada thought that were the case, he could then move for summary judgment on Schorno’s claim, and then Schorno would have the opportunity to argue or explain why, despite the partial judgment in Kannada’s favor, her claims still survive under a different theory. That seems reasonable.
For example, assume that Kannada did get his strict liability ruling for actions taking place before he was 16. What’s wrong with instructing the jury as follows: From ages 14-16, because of Kannada’s age, Schorno is liable for childhood sexual abuse. Your duty is therefore to determine what, if any, damages Kannada suffered during that period. From ages 16-18, however, the parties dispute who is liable for the continuing sexual contact. Your duty is therefore to determine who is telling the truth, if Kannada did in fact physically assault and threaten Schorno, or if Schorno manipulated Kannada, and who, if anyone, is liable for the conduct during that period. If you find either party liable, then you must determine damages.
Or something like that. That seems fine! Now, of course, given the Court’s ruling on the absence of strict liability, that’s not going to happen. But if that is what the trial court had in mind when it granted the partial summary judgment on liability, then I don’t see any problem with it. There’s no reason for a court to just throw up its hands and say “These issues are intertwined! It’s too hard to decided matters of law! I’ll just have the jury deal with it!” That seems like an abrogation of the judicial role.