City, family settle Brame lawsuit

$12 million deal honors Crystal, protects public disclosure

September 14, 2005 

The money won’t bring Crystal Judson back.

But a settlement agreement between her family and the City of Tacoma enshrines her name at a planned center devoted to assisting domestic violence victims. It ends the long-running wrongful-death suit stemming from the shootings of April 26, 2003, when Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and himself.

It also pays $12 million to the family, including the couple’s two orphaned children and their aunt and uncle. And finally, it ensures that fact-finding and public disclosure will continue.

The City Council approved the settlement unanimously Tuesday, but it still requires a judge’s endorsement.

The city will pay $1 million toward the settlement. Insurance will pick up the rest, city leaders said.

Separately, city leaders have agreed to name a planned county-city domestic violence center after Crystal Judson. Judson was Crystal Brame’s maiden name. The justice center would include her name on a plaque, and her name would also be used on letterhead and Internet sites used by the center.

“This is a good day for us in Tacoma,” said City Councilman Tom Stenger. “It’s a blessing.”

Stenger publicly thanked the Judson family for staying true to their stated goal: the truth, and systematic changes within the City of Tacoma.

Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said the city’s work is not done. She promised to continue efforts to provide a safe environment for all victims of domestic violence.

Added Mayor Bill Baarsma: “My feeling is this is a very fair settlement. The most important thing is it meets the needs of the Judson children, and it puts this tragic chapter behind us.”

DEPOSITIONS WILL CONTINUE

The Judsons sued the city in fall 2003, accusing leaders of negligence in the promotion and supervision of Brame, and charging that his actions could have been prevented.

The agreement dismisses the wrongful-death claims against the city, Baarsma, former City Manager Ray Corpuz and former Assistant Police Chief Catherine Woodard, and ends the lawsuit – eventually. It still requires approval from King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce, the judge presiding over the case. It also includes a stipulation that depositions in the case will continue until all parties are satisfied.

The family’s attorneys said they would make transcripts of the depositions available to the public.

“The settlement is unique in that it protects the citizens of Tacoma from further financial exposure, but allows the family to continue taking sworn testimony of those they believe played a role in their daughter’s death,” said David Beninger, one of the attorneys representing the family.

At the least, the deposition of Corpuz will proceed. It is scheduled for Sept. 20. The agreement also leaves the possibility that attorneys representing Woodard and Corpuz might conduct their own depositions. Officially the lawsuit won’t end until the court approves the settlement and the depositions are completed.

“We said from the very beginning that our primary reason for filing our lawsuit was to give us the ability to learn the truth surrounding Crystal’s death,” Lane Judson, Crystal Brame’s father, said in a statement. “We hope our efforts will help ensure others don’t have to go through what we have gone through and to provide Haley and David Jr. (the children of David and Crystal Brame) support in the future.”

Tacoma will pay its $1 million share from a $3 million litigation reserve fund set aside in the 2005-06 budget. The city’s attorney fees, which so far amount to nearly $1.8 million, will be paid by the two insurance companies that provided coverage for the city during the period of time covered by the Judson’s claim.

Although the city is self-insured, it carries excess coverage, or catastrophic coverage, for certain events.

The settlement agreement also includes the following elements:

 • A note from the city, signed by the mayor and the city manager, expressing regret for Crystal Judson’s death, and including the statement, “We are committed to actions, policies and changes which are aimed at preventing similar tragedies from occurring again.”

 • A resolution by the city, declaring April 26 of each year as Domestic Violence Awareness Day.

 • The city’s public release of documents related to the case, and circulated during the discovery process in the lawsuit. The documents would include investigative materials assembled by the city, though the agreement notes that some records might not be released if they violate an individual’s right to privacy, or if a court orders them withheld from the public.

 • A series of stipulations regarding city policies, each noting that the city will make “all reasonable efforts” to implement recommendations of a police audit and a citizen advisory panel, and to improve psychological screening of police officers.

A QUICKENED PACE

Settlement negotiations turned serious about two weeks ago, said Paul Luvera, the Judsons’ lead attorney. Attorneys for both sides said settlement was always a possibility, but they also cited several recent developments that prompted a softening in the city’s position: One was the family’s settlement with Pierce County, one of the original defendants in the suit. The agreement with the county included a commitment to build the family justice center.

Other factors cited by attorneys and one city leader were changes at City Hall: the departure of City Councilman Kevin Phelps and the July arrival of City Manager Eric Anderson.

The agreement with Pierce County showed that the Judsons were serious about obtaining more than money, Stenger said. And Phelps’ resignation six months before the end of his term made it much easier for the City Council to discuss a settlement, Stenger added.

“He was too much a player in the action to maintain his objectivity in the lawsuit,” Stenger said.

Phelps, who resigned his seat so he could take care of ailing relatives, denied Tuesday that he was a roadblock to settlement talks.

“I never felt like going to trial would be in the best interest of all parties, but I was confident of the city’s position if it went to trial,” he said.

“Tom is wrong once again,” Phelps said, adding, “It sounds like the city has a done a phenomenal job. The citizens of Tacoma should be extremely pleased.”

‘TO THE CITY’S CREDIT’

The stipulation that depositions will continue as part of the settlement is a rare component, according to the attorneys who are involved. Both Beninger and Rob Novasky, one of the attorneys representing the city, called it unique.

Luvera, a veteran of many courtroom battles, said he knew of similar agreements, but “nothing as open as this – I think it’s to the city’s credit.”

Beninger and Luvera said they have not decided how many additional depositions to conduct. They have a list of 10 to 20 people who would have been deposed had the lawsuit continued. That number could shrink, and the deposition of Corpuz is likely to influence the decision. Corpuz was fired in the aftermath of the shootings and is now the city manager of Seaside, Calif.

“It’s Mr. Corpuz who may have information he hasn’t shared with anybody,” Luvera said. “Part of it will be the family’s issue. They are the ones to decide who has the possible answers.”

When reached late Tuesday, James Frush, Corpuz’s attorney, said he hadn’t had a chance to speak to his client about the settlement. But he offered his own view.

“I feel that the person who was responsible was David Brame, and that under the laws of negligence he alone was the one who would ultimately be found legally responsible,” Frush said. “It appears as though Mr. Corpuz’s deposition will go forward even though the parties and plaintiffs have reached a settlement. Mr. Corpuz has nothing to hide and looks forward to presenting his recollections and perspectives on what’s ultimately a tragic situation for a great number of people, including the Judsons and most particularly the children.”

Former Assistant Police Chief Woodard, the other named defendant in the suit, was not available for comment. One of her attorneys, Rob Leinbach, issued a short statement in response to the settlement.

“Catherine Woodard welcomes a settlement with Crystal Judson’s estate that allows all parties to continue to seek access to the truth,” the statement read in part.

The Judsons were not available for comment Tuesday. Luvera said they were following the settlement negotiations closely.

“I think there is a mixed feeling,” Luvera said. “They’ve accomplished something that they think is important for the community and for domestic violence victims.

“But I think there is also a feeling of emptiness that is also understandable, and I think it will never be taken away from them.”

Settlement Terms

The City of Tacoma has agreed to settle the long-running lawsuit by the family of Crystal Judson Brame, who was killed by her husband, Police Chief David Brame, in 2003. Among settlement terms:

 • Pay $12 million to Judson family (insurance will cover $11 million).

 • Name the planned city-county domestic violence center for Crystal Judson; proclaim April 26 Domestic Violence Awareness Day.

 • Present letter from mayor and city manager expressing regret for Crystal’s death and committing to prevention of such tragedies.

 • Continue lawsuit short-term to allow depositions aimed at uncovering more information.

 • Make “all reasonable efforts” to improve specified city policies.

BRAME LAWSUIT TIMELINE

Dec. 28, 2001: City Manager Ray Corpuz selects 20-year veteran David Brame as Tacoma’s 46th police chief.

Feb. 24, 2003: Crystal Brame files for divorce.

April 26, 2003: Brame shoots Crystal, then kills himself in Gig Harbor parking lot.

May 3, 2003: Crystal Brame dies of wounds.

June 9, 2003: Crystal’s family files $75 million claim against city, alleging it caused her death.

Aug. 5, 2003: City Council denies claim.

Sept. 4, 2003: Family files amended claim, asking for about $8 million and city’s cooperation in finding the truth and ensuring accountability. Parties unable to reach settlement.

Oct. 8, 2003: Family files wrongful death lawsuit.

Sept. 13, 2005: City Council agrees to tentative settlement with plaintiffs.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542

jason.hagey@thenewstribune.com

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