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Unanimous Decision by Washington Supreme Court Defines Expansive Scope of State’s Consumer Protection Act

December 10, 2015

December 10, 2015 – The Washington Supreme Court announced a unanimous decision today in Thornell v. Seattle Service Bureau, Inc., reaffirming the remedial purpose and expansive scope of the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Sandra Thornell received false and misleading debt collection letters at her Texas home. The letters were sent by a Washington-based debt collection company on behalf of an Illinois-based insurance company. Ms. Thornell filed a class action lawsuit in Washington, alleging that the insurance company and debt collector violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act by sending the misleading collection letters.

In interpreting the Washington Consumer Protection Act, the court decided two important questions:

Question 1

Does the Washington Consumer Protection Act create a cause of action for a plaintiff living outside Washington to sue a Washington company for allegedly deceptive acts?

Question 2

Does the Washington Consumer Protection Act create a cause of action for an out-of-state plaintiff to sue an out-of-state defendant for the allegedly deceptive acts of its in-state agent?

The court answered ‘yes’ to both questions. The CPA does protect non-Washington residents from unfair or deceptive acts by businesses operating in Washington. The court recognized the danger that “unscrupulous entities might escape liability under the CPA if out-of-state citizens could not bring CPA actions against Washington entities that direct unfair and deceptive practices only to out-of-state residents.” The court also ruled that a principal could be liable for acts of its agent, even though the principal in this case is an out-of-state entity. “A principal cannot send agents into a state to commit WCPA violations in order to avoid liability by virtue of its out-of-state residence.”

In holding that the protections of CPA extend beyond the borders of the state, the Court said its interpretation “is consistent with the legislature’s mandate that the CPA be liberally construed.”

The decision will affect non-Washington residents who are victims of CPA violations by both Washington corporations as well as Washington agents acting on behalf of Non-Washington corporations.

The case was briefed and argued in the Washington Supreme Court by TMLG attorneys.

Video of Beth Terrell’s oral argument in the Washington Supreme Court is available here.