Special Reports

City looks positively on chance to settle

Crystal Brame's family's offer to settle its legal claim against the City of Tacoma is reasonable and a good starting point for negotiations, say attorneys for the city.

"We're not at odds right now," said Tim Gosselin, one of several lawyers representing Tacoma in the talks. "We're both moving in the right direction. I consider it a positive step."

The family has requested truth-telling, accountability and new domestic violence prevention programs. Those demands are broad and unspecific, Gosselin said, but that's how settlement negotiations begin.

"They gave us a skeleton, and there needs to be flesh put onto it," he said.

Crystal Brame's parents, Lane and Patty Judson, and their daughter, Julie Ahrens, said last week they want the city to give them all documents relative to David Brame's rise through the police department.

Wednesday, their attorney filed the family's first public disclosure request with the city, invoking state open records laws to ask for documentation of the city's insurance policies, David Brame's career and investigations into the shootings.

Media organizations have already requested virtually all those documents, Gosselin said, adding that the city will quickly provide them to the family.

The Judsons and Ahrens filed the claim against the city after Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and himself April 26 in a Gig Harbor parking lot with their two young children nearby.

The claim is the first step toward filing a lawsuit.

On Thursday, the family lowered the amount of the $75 million claim, asking instead for the amount of the city's insurance.

At the time of the shootings, the city had a $5 million policy with a $3 million deductible, said Rob Novasky, who works with Gosselin at the Tacoma law firm Burgess Fitzer. An additional $1 million reserve fund would be used to pay the deductible, he said.

The family said they were dropping the claim amount because they wanted to emphasize that their priority is to find out how David Brame became chief, and to make sure that a death such as their daughter's never happens again.

City officials are working on those goals, too, Gosselin said, so it should be possible to find common ground between the city and the family.

For example, he said, the city has convened a committee to research domestic violence, and has released more than 30,000 pages of documents in response to public disclosure requests from media outlets and others.

The family's attorney, Paul Luvera of Seattle, contends the city is liable for Crystal Brame's death because David Brame should not have been hired or promoted to chief, and was inadequately supervised.

City officials and their attorneys say they do not believe the city is responsible for Crystal Brame's death, but say they would rather settle than go through a costly court trial.

Important to the Judsons are their requirements that the city get to the truth of how Brame was hired and promoted despite failing a psychological exam and being accused of rape.

When they announced the revised claim last week, the Judsons said they want the city to help them get sworn testimony from city employees who knew anything about Brame's career.

The claim itself makes no reference to sworn testimony, and the city's lawyers say they've been given no formal notice that's what the family wants.

But Gosselin said he's not surprised the family wants more than is directly stated in the claim. Those details will come out in negotiations, he said.

Sworn testimony might be possible, in some format, Gosselin said.

"If there was a lawsuit, they could have that testimony," he said. "We're trying to avoid a lawsuit. If they can get it (the testimony) one way, maybe we can get it another way."

Asking city employees to testify under oath could be a complicated issue, depending on how they are approached, legal experts said.

Mike Panagiotu, who has negotiated settlements for Pierce County for 27 years, said he didn't think it was possible outside of a lawsuit, which would allow lawyers to subpoena witnesses. Panagiotu is not a lawyer.

Several attorneys said it could be possible for an employer to compel its employees to talk about their jobs under oath. The city might have to negotiate with its employees' unions, said Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe.

Employees might take the Fifth Amendment to protect themselves, or refuse to testify unless the city guaranteed they wouldn't be prosecuted or penalized for their testimony, she said.

It's not unusual for a family to want more information, she said.

"A lot of people deal with grief and trauma by getting more information about it," she said. "You feel better knowing what went on."

Luvera has chastised the city for waiting until nearly the last day to respond to the family's first claim filing. The new offer is good for 30 days and the family will sue if the city waits until day 29 to respond, Luvera said.

"We'll try to get a response as early as we can," Gosselin said. "The things that delayed us the last time - getting into the case and trying to understand the legal issues - we've done that now."

However, the claim is filed against a government, which has many people involved in making decisions, and rules for when public officials can meet, Gosselin pointed out. He said he will meet with City Council members this week.

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658