Washington Supreme Court Offers More Protection in Civil Court Against Racism

SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court has issued a unanimous opinion that a new trial is warranted in civil cases in which racial bias was present in court proceedings. The judges on the court found that there had been race-based misconduct that is not a harmless human error.

This opinion by the judges is the latest one they have issued with the goal of addressing racism and removing it from the state court system.

The case before the court involved personal injury that was sustained from a car crash. The court found that the trial court should have held a hearing in which allegations of racial bias and prejudice were raised by the defense in the case. It was ordered back to the King County Superior Court for a hearing on the allegations of racial bias and to get a new trial in the case.

The 33-page opinion from the justices found that the plaintiff in the personal injury case, who is black, and her Seattle-based attorney, who is also black, had to endure statements made by the defense that played into racist tropes and even suggested improprieties between Henderson and her black witnesses. The justices also found that Superior Court Judge Melinda Young had abused her own discretion by not punishing the defense when they withheld evidence from Henderson’s lawyers before the trial even took place.

The opinion of the judges also stresses that an evidentiary hearing about racial bias has to be held if the court is presented with evidence by an objective observer who is able to conclude there was a racial bias and that that was a factor in the verdict of a trial.

The case that is cited in the opinions of the justices was in court in 2019 for a jury trial in which the defense portrayed Henderson as very combative and confrontational. The justices found that this is a harmful stereotype of an angry black woman. The defense also suggested that there was some type of racial collusion between Henderson and her witnesses, three of whom happened to be black women who all use the same terminology when describing Henderson in their testimony as “life of the party.”