Washington Supreme Court

OLYMPIA -- Judging from the reaction to a recent Washington Supreme Court split opinion, a practical-joking dentist may have tricked more than just his former assistant. Several legal commentators have implied that he may also have pulled a fast one on the state's high court itself. By a narrow 5-4 margin in Woo v. Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. (docket# 77684-9) the often-divided Washingtom Supreme Court ruled in favor of dentist Woo, who played a practical joke on his sedated assistant. Woo's insurance company refused to defend him after the employee sued. The Supreme Court reinstated $750,000 awarded against the insurer by a trial court but subsequently overturned by the state Court of Appeals. It also granted the dentist attorney fees and costs, which include a settlement of $250,000. "We hold that the [Court of Appeals] erred in concluding that Fireman's had no duty to defend Woo under the professional liability and general liability provisions," wrote Justice Mary E. Fairhurst for the majority opinion. But disagreeing judges were pointed in their dissent. The defendant stated that her injuries were due "solely of Woo's intentional conduct, none of which involves providing dental services," wrote dissenting Justice Charles W. Johnson. "Even under the most liberal construction, the complaint's allegations are not conceivably covered" by insurance, he concluded. Opinion writers have expressed outrage at the idea that Woo's actions and the employee's subequent lawsuit should be covered by liability insurance. Seattle Times' Sunday columnist Danny Westneat excoriated the decision. "Is putting boar's tusks into a sedated patient's mouth, then prying her eyes open and taking pictures to ridicule her, something a reasonable person would say is part of the craft of dentistry?" he wrote sarcastically. Woo's emplyee first brought suit against him for the aftermath of the joke in 1999.

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