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Wash. high court: Immigration status inadmissible

Thu., April 15, 2010, 1:02 p.m.

SEATTLE — The Washington state Supreme Court has ruled that a man’s undocumented immigrant status in the U.S. should not have been introduced in a trial while the man sought damages in a negligence lawsuit against a construction contractor.

In a 7-2 ruling, the state’s high court reversed a state Court of Appeals decision to uphold a jury verdict against Alex Salas.

The question before the court revolved around the issue of whether Salas’ immigration status affects his claim for future wages, given that he is illegally in the country.

The jury found the construction contractor had been negligent but did not award any monetary damages to him.

“I knew justice wasn’t being done,” said Salas’ attorney Robert B. Kornfeld. “Here you have someone who violates (workers’ safety) and they get away with it, because this guy was undocumented? That wasn’t right.”

A Mexican native, Salas was working on a construction project in Seattle in 2002 when he fell from a ladder provided by Hi-Tech Erectors.

He was seriously injured and sued the contractor two years later, alleging that the ladder did not meet safety codes. According to court documents, the day of the fall was wet, and the ladder did not have a textured surface to prevent slipping.

Salas suffered back, hip and ankle injures, including multiple fractures in joints. Kornfeld said Salas’ medical bills went up to $150,000 and that he faces a hip replacement. “Eventually one day, he will be very crippled,” Kornfeld said.

Salas sought up to a $1 million in damages.

But just before the lawsuit went to trial, Salas’ status as an illegal immigrant was revealed during the deposition of his psychiatrist. Salas’ team moved to exclude that fact from trial, pointing out that immigration was a hot-button issue that may cloud a jury’s ruling. But their request was denied.

Attorney Matthew Boyle, who represented Hi-Tech Erectors, said Salas had not disclosed his immigration status to him or his own lawyer.

“Up to that point in time, we both believed we worked here legally because that’s what he told us,” Boyle said.

Boyle, though, said that Salas’ immigration status wasn’t something his case revolved around. “It really wasn’t a central focus, we were defending on the liability issues.”

Salas entered the country in 1989 on a visa. Court documents state he applied for legal status, but did not hear back. His visa expired in 1994, and has since lived here undocumented. Salas is married and is a father of three. He now lives in Texas.

Boyle said they are weighing their options and may ask the high court to reconsider. Kornfeld said that they will seek a new trial if Hi-Tech Erectors does not want to settle.

The state Supreme Court said admitting Salas’ immigration status presented “the danger of unfair prejudice.”

Writing on behalf of the two justices who dissented, Justice Gerry L. Alexander said the trial court’s admission of Salas’ immigration status was not “manifestly unreasonable.”

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