Interpreting Releases In Washington State

Under Washington State contract law, how are “releases” interpreted? Here’s my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).


In Washington State, the term "release" has been defined as a contract in which one party agrees to abandon or relinquish a claim or cause of action against another. Boyce v. West, 71 Wn.App. 657, 862 P.2d 59 (Div. 3 1993) (emphasis added). Washington courts apply basic principles of contract law to releases. Saben v. Skagit County, 136 Wn.App. 869, 152 P.3d 1034 (Div. 1 2006). 

Moreover, Washington courts follow the objective manifestation theory of contracts, looking for the parties’ intent as objectively manifested rather than their unexpressed subjective intent. See Renfro v. Kaur, 156 Wn.App. 655, 662, 235 P.3d 800, 802 (Div. 1 2010), rev denied, 170 Wn.2d 1006, 245 P.3d 227 (2010) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).


The context rule is used for interpretation. Western Washington Corp. of Seventh-Day Adventists v. Ferrellgas, Inc., 102 Wn.App. 488, 495-96, 7 P.3d 861 (Div. 2 2000), rev. denied, 143 Wn.2d 1003, 21 P.3d 292 (Wash. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Thus, Washington courts determine intent not only from the actual language of the release, but also from viewing the release as a whole, the subject matter and objective of the release, all the circumstances surrounding the making of the release, the subsequent acts and conduct of the parties to the release, and the reasonableness of the respective interpretation advocated by the parties. See id. at 495 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).


Extrinsic evidence may be used to determine the meaning of specific words used. Marshall v. Thurston County, 165 Wn.App. 346, 351, 267 P.3d 491 (Div. 2 2011) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). However, standard dictionary definitions of words are generally accepted as the ordinary and common meaning.  Allstate Ins. Co. v. Neel, 25 Wn.App. 722, 725, 612 P.2d 6 (Div. 1 1980) (court utilized Merriam-Webster Dictionary to define “own” and determined that parents’ auto policy did not cover child).

It is important to note that extrinsic evidence may not be used (1) to establish a party’s unilateral or subjective intent as to the meaning of a contract word or term; (2) to show an intention independent of the instrument, or (3) to vary, contradict, or modify the written word.  Renfro v. Kaur, 156 Wn.App. at 661 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

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If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.

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