Roberts v. Johnson—A Welcome Change Tainted by an Outmoded Approach to Statutory Interpretation
In 1974, the Washington State Legislature repealed its automobile guest statute, intending to establish ordinary negligence as the proper standard of liability in host-guest automobile tort actions. Nevertheless, in March 1978, in Lau v. Nelson, the Washington Supreme Court, ignoring clear indicia of legislative intent, held that the repeal of the guest statute revived the common law of this state, which, like the guest statute, predicated a guest's recovery on proving the host grossly negligent. Having effectively reinstated the very law the legislature repealed, the Lau court declined to decide whether the majority rule of ordinary negligence should replace Washington's common law rule of gross negligence. In December 1978, in Roberts v. Johnson, the court resolved that issue by overruling Lau and abandoning gross negligence in favor of ordinary negligence as the applicable standard of liability. This laudatory and long overdue result was tainted, however, by the court's specific reaffirmation of Lau's holding that the repeal of a statute reinstates the common law regardless of the legislative intent behind the repeal. The court's failure to ascertain and implement the legislative intent is the unfortunate manifestation of a rigid, insensitive, and rule-oriented approach to statutory interpretation.
Mark F. Miller, Roberts v. Johnson—A Welcome Change Tainted by an Outmoded Approach to Statutory Interpretation, 2 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 408 (1979).