Special Reports

Crystal's family unhappy with offer

Lawyers for Crystal Brame's family say Tacoma officials still are trying to protect people responsible for her death, despite the City Council's offer to settle a potential lawsuit.

Unless that changes - and soon - they'll sue, the lawyers said Wednesday.

"The clock is still ticking," said attorney David Beninger, who with Paul Luvera is representing Crystal Brame's family. "Until they start to negotiate in good faith and there appears to be any progress being made, that clock is still ticking."

Tacoma City Council members Tuesday offered to settle the family's wrongful death claim for an amount likely to be at least $8 million, coupled with a promise to help find out the truth about Crystal Brame's death.

But the resolution includes language that Beninger couldn't accept: The family would have to release any claims against the city, as well as its past and present employees.

"If that's going to be the condition of any negotiations," Beninger said, "let us know and we'll just go to the courthouse.

"While their response looks good in general," he said, "the devil is in the details. The cornerstone to our negotiations has been full disclosure and individual responsibility. It's the only way we can get at the root of the problems here and make some changes."

Beninger said that although his clients might be willing to settle their claim against the city, they'd want to retain the right to sue anyone they deem culpable in Crystal Brame's death.

"The city's response always seems to be, 'Let's talk money,' and 'If we offer enough money, maybe we can buy the protection of individuals,'" Beninger said.

Rob Novasky, part of a team of attorneys representing the city, said he's ready to defend the city in court, but officials want to avoid a legal battle.

They have to include certain legal protections in any settlement, though, he said.

"Employees are acting on behalf of the city," he said. "What would happen is, the city pays its insurance limits, and then the Judson family would want to sue individuals, the city would be obligated (by law) to turn around and defend its employees. So they would be paying twice.

"A settlement is supposed to conclude a matter in its entirety."

When Crystal Brame's family - her parents, Patty and Lane Judson; her sister, Julie Ahrens; and her children - submitted a revised wrongful death claim to the city Sept. 4, they gave officials 30 days to respond or face a lawsuit.

The claim - the first step toward suing the government - says the city and its employees are responsible for the actions of Police Chief David Brame, who fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and then himself April 26.

The family's initial claim was for $75 million, but the revised claim asked for less money in exchange for new domestic violence programs and access to information.

Beninger countered that there are exceptions to the law requiring cities to defend their employees in court. The law protects only employees working within the scope of their jobs and in good faith.

He said the city took too long before passing a resolution that effectively says only that it's willing to negotiate. He said city officials also never called the Judson family for their reaction or to tell them they were considering a resolution.

And, he said, officials inappropriately have been negotiating pensions and leaves of absence with people who share responsibility for Crystal Brame's death. Former City Manager Ray Corpuz was given a pension, and assistant police chief Catherine Woodard is on paid leave, he noted.

Novasky said city officials have cooperated from the beginning.

They have responded to information requests, turned the matter over to three agencies for investigation, waived any attorney-client privilege so employees could cooperate, and started to work on domestic violence programs, he said.

The defense lawyer said he doesn't understand the family's aggravation at the timing.

"The revised claim had a 30-day time period to respond," he said, noting that lawyers had to evaluate the claim and council members then had to give their OK to go forward. "Nineteen days is not a long time, and that's almost half the time that was given for the response.

"We have indicated through the unanimous vote that we're willing to talk to them about the issues," Novasky said. "Now is the time that we would sit down and talk to them."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660