Special Reports

'Settlement dance' in Brame case takes 1st step

Lawyers for the City of Tacoma say they want to negotiate a settlement to the impending wrongful death lawsuit in the David Brame case.

But the attorney for Crystal Brame's family says he won't talk until city officials acknowledge they're partly responsible for Brame killing his wife April 26.

Some lawyers say such an acknowledgment before negotiations begin is nearly unheard of.

So, are the two sides destined for a long, complex trial, or are they beginning what legal minds call "the settlement dance"?

"As a general rule, over 90 percent of cases settle before they get to trial," said Mike Patterson, a Seattle attorney for 30 years, whose practice is largely defending public entities. "There's some rhetoric going on, which is not unusual when you have a claim of this nature filed."

Karen Koehler, a Bellevue personal injury attorney, said it's like the beginning of a "long movie story."

"Everything they're doing is establishing a negotiation pathway or strategy," said Koehler, who has worked on lawsuits connected to the Seattle Mardi Gras riots. "They're at polar opposites, and they're starting the dance moves."

Still, some cases end up in front of juries.

Tuesday, the City Council denied the family's $75 million claim. The family can sue the city as early as Friday, when a 60-day waiting period ends.

Attorneys for the city say they want to avoid a trial because of the cost of litigation and pain to the family, the city and the community.

"If there's a way of working through the issues, we'll try to find it," said Tim Gosselin, who with Rob Novasky and Jill Stone is representing the city.

"The city wants the truth," he said, as do the agencies investigating Brame's career and downfall.

"With those common goals, we should be able to find the truth," said Gosselin of the Tacoma law firm Burgess Fitzer.

Seattle attorney Paul Luvera said he's willing to go to court if he can't get truth and accountability any other way for Crystal Brame's parents, Lane and Patty Judson; her children, 8-year-old Haley and 5-year-old David; and her sister, Julie Ahrens.

"There will be negotiations," Luvera said, "just as soon as the city steps up to the plate and takes responsibility for what happened."

Luvera - a high-profile lawyer known for his success in big cases - has said the family's first concern is who knew what, when about David Brame, and what they did and why.

They want "full disclosure," he said.

Luvera also wants people responsible to be disciplined in some way, and wants the city to make changes to ensure a similar incident never happens again.

Gosselin said he doesn't know what Luvera means when he says "full disclosure."

"They have a lot of information already," he said. "We don't know what they feel they don't have."

He said because the city is a public entity, Luvera is entitled to information he wouldn't receive if he were suing a private company.

Luvera said he wants information beyond paperwork, details he can get only by making people testify under oath.

"In my view," Luvera said, "what they're doing is putting on a face to the public: 'We didn't do anything wrong, but we feel so bad about what happened to these orphans and their murdered mother that we're going to negotiate anyway.'

"If they didn't do anything wrong," Luvera said, "they have nothing to settle for."

Gosselin said negotiating the case without wasting money and time on litigation would give Crystal Brame's family more.

"The only result of going to trial is a money judgment," Gosselin said. "The advantage to the settlement process is that limitation doesn't occur."

A jury, he said, can't order the city to make changes to the way it handles domestic violence complaints. It can't order an apology, he said. It's not uncommon for families in wrongful death suits to ask for more than just money, lawyers say.

After Kristopher Kime was beaten to death in the Seattle Mardi Gras riots in 2001, attorney Koehler's settlement with the city included installing a plaque where Kime died, allowing family members access to city safety committee meetings and setting up a scholarship fund.

The negotiations in Bellingham's Olympic Pipe Line explosion - in which Luvera received a $75 million settlement in 2002 for the families of two boys killed in the 1999 disaster - included safety changes.

And when Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly sued the Puyallup School District for families alleging racial discrimination, the $7.5 million settlement last year also set up a new office of minority affairs, among other things.

Asking for changes, information and access can make negotiations trickier than if lawyers were just fighting over a dollar amount, some attorneys say.

"If, in fact, it was all about money, that would be a decision that would be made either by outside insurance carriers or the financial people within the organization," Patterson said.

New policies can involve hiring more staff, extra expenses, and political decisions, he said.

Gosselin said the simpler the issues, the simpler the negotiations.

"But the question isn't simplicity or difficulty," he said. "It's a genuine desire to work through the issues. I kind of feel like if there's a will, there's a way."

Luvera said he won't give the city "their cake" and let them eat it, too.

"The filing of this lawsuit will take place if the city maintains the position they have maintained," he said.

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660