Special Reports

City deflects Brame blame

If the City of Tacoma is to blame in the death of Crystal Brame, then so are a number of other parties: her attorney, her counselor and members of her family, the city's attorneys claim in court papers filed this week.

The city hasn't changed its belief "that David Brame is the one who is responsible for the shooting," attorney Tim Gosselin said Friday.

But if Crystal Brame's family "wants to the make the city responsible, it's just as easy to say that others are responsible, too."

Gosselin made his legal arguments to that effect Wednesday in answer to the wrongful death suit filed against the city by Crystal Brame's children; her parents, Lane and Patty Judson; and her sister, Julie Ahrens.

Crystal Brame was fatally shot April 26 by her husband, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, as the two were locked in hostile divorce proceedings. In June, her family filed a $75 million wrongful death claim against the city, charging officials knew of David Brame's lethal personality and did nothing about it.

The city denied the claim but offered a settlement that amounted to about $8 million. Crystal Brame's family, irked that the city wasn't doing enough to get to the truth, converted the claim to a lawsuit last month.

Gosselin, one of four attorneys from the Tacoma law firm of Burgess Fitzer working on the case under a $1.9 million contract with the city, filed the six-page answer to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The City of Gig Harbor, Pierce County, Internet publisher John Hathaway, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer "and other media" also are named as potentially responsible parties in Tacoma's defense against the lawsuit.

The named parties are not being sued. But in essence, the city's attorneys are saying that if city officials should have known about David Brame's potential for violence against his wife and taken action to prevent it, then others should have, too.

Crystal Brame alleged in her divorce papers and told many people close to her that David Brame had choked her, pointed a gun at her and threatened her life and that she feared for her safety.

The city's answer to the lawsuit is not an unusual legal tactic, though lawsuits of this type are rare, Seattle University law professor John Strait said Friday.

Seattle attorney Mike Patterson, who often defends public entities, agreed.

If the case ever goes to trial before a jury, jurors could conceivably be asked to assign a percentage of responsibility for Crystal Brame's death to a list of people and organizations, Patterson said. The Tacoma legal team just made that list longer.

But the family's attorney, Paul Luvera, denounced the city's legal strategy, calling it a "frivolous defense."

"The city has elected to point its finger of blame for the murder of Crystal Brame at just about everyone except where the blame belongs, itself," Luvera said in a statement.

In Gig Harbor, City Administrator Mark Hoppen said he'll alert City Attorney Carol Morris to the fact that the city is named in Tacoma's legal filings. The city notified its insurance company immediately after the shootings, he said.

Tacoma's court papers don't explicitly say what Gig Harbor's involvement might have been, but the Brames lived in Gig Harbor and both David and Crystal Brame had reported spousal abuse to Gig Harbor police.

Internet publisher Hathaway, who first made details of the Brame's divorce proceedings public, said he thought it "ludicrous that anyone would think I had prior knowledge of David Brame's bizarre behavior."

"Do I feel any guilt?" he asked. "No. Do I feel any stress? Yes."

Many who knew David Brame have speculated that his fear of losing the dream job for which he'd worked a lifetime pushed him over the psychological edge after Crystal's allegations of domestic abuse became public.

The attorneys meet periodically with City Council members to keep them informed of their progress and to give them information they might need to make decisions about how the case is handled, Gosselin said.

There is no hearing date in the case at the moment.

Luvera filed suit Oct. 8 in Pierce County Superior Court, but the city's attorneys got the case moved to U.S. District Court in Tacoma, saying it would be cheaper and faster to litigate the lawsuit there. The case was then moved to Seattle and assigned to U.S. District Judge John Coughenhour after the federal judges in Tacoma recused themselves, Gosselin said.

Both sides have argued their cases on where the lawsuit should be contested, and it's Coughenhour's job to decide the issue, but he's under no time limit, Gosselin said.

In the meantime, Luvera, the Judsons' attorney, plans to proceed with his case.

"The next step is for our firm to begin deposing - under oath - those we believe have information about this," he said.

Staff writer Lisa Kremer contributed to this report.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659