Special Reports

Lawsuits: Crystal Brame's children, parents have valid cases, could get millions, attorneys say

Will someone sue the City of Tacoma because of David Brame?

Since Tacoma Police Chief Brame fatally shot his wife and killed himself April 26, revelations about him and how the city dealt with him have come in a flurry.

Among them are two psychologists' conclusions that Brame shouldn't be hired as a cop; a woman's allegation that he raped her in 1988; city human resource officials' report in 2001 that Brame's past might embarrass the city; and a controversial decision not to take away his gun and badge the day before the shootings.

And with that whirlwind of allegations and claims comes a whirlwind of questions and legal theories.

Who knew what? Whose fault was it? Could different decisions have led to a different outcome?

And who should pay whom?

While no one can answer whether someone else will file a lawsuit, The News Tribune asked five attorneys to speculate whether anyone has valid legal claims.

"My opinion is, you don't have to stretch really far to get a good solid case of liability against the City of Tacoma," said Karen Koehler, a Bellevue personal injury attorney not working on the case.

Any lawyer who sues the city or the police department will face a fight, though.

"There's another side out there on the legal liability issue," said civil defense attorney Ed Winskill, also not involved in the Brame case. "There are several defenses."

Because the shootings stemmed from David and Crystal Brame's domestic relationship and not David Brame's employment, Winskill said, "there would be questions as to what power the city had to prevent it."

Five civil attorneys in Tacoma, Seattle and Bellevue differed on which theories could be used and which ones were strong. All five said there are reasons to sue.

They came up with these potential lawsuits in connection to Brame:

Crystal Brame's parents and the Brames' children could file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the police department.

It would be based on allegations officials knew, should have known or covered up David Brame's hazardous conduct while a police officer.

A civil rights action could be based on Crystal Brame's constitutional right to safety. The plaintiff would have to prove the city or the police department denied her that safety by giving David Brame the potentially fatal power of a police officer.

A negligence lawsuit against the city and the police department would charge they failed to supervise David Brame, if officials knew he was dangerous.

A negligence lawsuit against the city and the police department could also charge that they hired Brame, retained him or promoted him to chief even though he failed a psychological exam and later admitted to another officer that he'd raped a woman.

Though the statute of limitations for any improper acts linked to Brame's hiring has passed, his 2001 promotion to chief is recent enough to support a suit.

And if someone found new information - such as evidence the city covered up something - the statute of limitations would begin anew.

A lawsuit by the woman who says Brame raped her in 1988, if she can find new information to prove the city covered up evidence against him. That would be necessary to overcome the expired statute of limitations.

Most attorneys called this a long shot, but one said it was a strong case.

Any of the suits could name individuals, as well as the government entities. They could be filed in either state or federal court, on behalf of Crystal Brame's children, her parents or her estate.

All the lawsuits come with the potential for staggering damages awarded to the Brame children, 8-year-old Haley and 5-year-old David Jr. The city would have to pay anything above $5 million, which insurance would cover.

The largest payouts in most court proceedings are for punitive damages - those levied to punish a person or agency.

State law doesn't allow punitive damages, but if a civil rights claim is made under federal law, unlimited claims are allowed.

"Even if you take away punitive damages, their claims are in the millions for having lost their mother," said Koehler, who won a settlement with the City of Seattle for the family of a man killed in the Mardi Gras riots. "And, of course, they lost their father, too."

The children could seek damages for what both of their parents would have earned in the future, regardless of their guardians' income level. Such damages usually range from $250,000 to $400,000, one attorney estimated.

They could also ask for damages for having lost the love and guidance of their mother and for their own pain.

"You have to look at the kids' injuries, because that dictates what you're seeking compensation for," Koehler said. "First of all, they're orphans. Second, they were present (at the shootings), so they're going to have post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Additionally, damages could be awarded to Crystal Brame's estate or the children for the fear and suffering she felt before she was killed.

"This could be a big one," said Tacoma attorney Blake Kremer. "The only limit on the amount of pain and suffering she had is the jury's imagination."

One important factor in determining if the city or police department were liable would be showing the city was responsible for David Brame's actions, even when he was off duty.

"You have to link his actions to his job and his authority," said Rebecca Roe, a Seattle government liability attorney.

For one thing, some attorneys said, the department issued him the .45-caliber handgun he used to kill his wife.

Also, police officers, unlike other types of employees, are considered "on duty" all the time, plaintiffs' attorneys said.

Winskill disagreed, saying the department can't be held accountable for everything officers do in their free time.

Koehler brought up another point that links Brame's job to the killing: Though it could be difficult to prove, an attorney could argue that had Brame not been made chief, he wouldn't have been so stressed and wouldn't have shot his wife.

Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said she and her colleagues realize the city could likely face a lawsuit, even though they know it can do only so much.

"It doesn't matter, really, how much they might receive in any kind of lawsuit," she said of Crystal Brame's family. "It's not ever going to bring their family back, their daughter back.

"I wish there was something we could do to make that happen, but we can't."

Bill Bailey, a Seattle attorney who often takes wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases, said loved ones usually are not looking for money.

"It just gives them a place to take their grief and get some accountability," Bailey said. "... Particularly when Brame killed himself, what else can these people do to get some accountability?"

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660