Special Reports

City lawyers suffer two setbacks in Brame case

Fashion tips to the City of Tacoma’s witnesses in the David Brame wrongful-death lawsuit are fair game for opposing attorneys, and the city’s witnesses must answer questions during depositions, even if the tone gets tough.

Those rulings from King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce highlighted a brief and testy hearing Thursday – part of the long run-up to next year’s trial. The rulings handed a pair of procedural victories to attorneys for the family of Brame’s wife, Crystal, but the argument isn’t entirely settled.

Lately, attorneys for the two sides have argued over the city’s use of a trial consultant to prepare witnesses for testimony.

The family’s legal team calls consultant Angela Dodge a “witness coach,” and hopes to grill her about her methods, such as telling witnesses what to wear, how to speak and when to make eye contact with the jury.

The city’s lawyers say Dodge’s work should be protected by attorney-client privilege.

Cayce initially ruled for the family, but the issue is on hold while the city appeals to a higher court.

Tim Gosselin, lead attorney for the city’s legal team, argued that witnesses walk into depositions without any experience, and face seasoned lawyers less interested in truth than in building a good case.

“And that would be great for the jury to hear,” Cayce replied. “What’s wrong with that? If someone has training as an actor, if they can cry on cue, isn’t it appropriate for the jury to know that?”

While his instincts leaned toward allowing attorneys to question Dodge, Cayce admitted that other courts haven’t given trial consultants much attention. He said he would welcome a ruling from the Washington State Court of Appeals.

On another subject – behavior of attorneys in depositions – he was more direct.

Depositions create the first draft of what will become testimony in front of a jury. They’re kitchen-sink affairs: Attorneys cover a wide range of topics, though many questions and answers never reach the jury. Typically, courtroom-style theatrical objections are rare – attorneys save those fights for later, haggle over what stays and what goes, and let the judge settle disagreements.

But the higher the stakes, the more contentious depositions become – and the Brame suit is a high-stakes case. Quarrels over deposition conduct have stalled the process several times.

A few months ago, the snags prompted a ruling from Cayce, who ordered attorneys to limit their objections – but Wednesday, another deposition slid off the rails, forcing the judge to intercede.

The deponent was Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli. David Beninger, one of the attorneys representing Crystal Brame’s family, asked Pauli about a crucial incident in the Brame case: a meeting between city department heads on April 25, 2003, the day before David Brame fatally shot Crystal and himself. The topic of the meeting: news stories about the Brames’ divorce.

Beninger, taking multiple runs at the subject, asked whether Pauli would have taken different steps that day had she known the full extent of Crystal Brame’s statements in divorce papers, including allegations of domestic violence and death threats.

The deposition transcript shows Rob Novasky, one of the city’s attorneys, stepping in.

“I’m going to object to the question,” he said. “You’ve asked it and she’s answered it several times in various forms, and I’m instructing her not to answer it further.”

“You’re going to instruct this one?” Beninger asked. “You must be kidding me.”

“I’m not kidding,” Novasky said.

“OK,” said Beninger. “I’ll take that up with the judge.”

Beninger did just that, filing a motion that asked Cayce to compel Pauli’s answer and sanction the city’s attorneys. Thursday, he won the argument.

Before Cayce signed the order, he took a moment to flatten Novasky’s objections. “There’s no basis for you to instruct her not to answer,” Cayce said. “Don’t instruct her not to answer.”

Novasky said Beninger’s questions to Pauli were harassing. Cayce said they weren’t. Novasky tried again.

“If a question is oppressive or harassing – ” Novasky began.

“It wasn’t,” Cayce said.

Novasky said he disagreed.

“You have the right to be wrong,” Cayce said. “Don’t instruct the witness not to answer.”

Novasky tried once more. Cayce repeated himself several times.

“Don’t instruct the witness not to answer,” he said. “I think you understand my position.”

THE CASE: Brame v. Tacoma

THE PLAINTIFFS: Family of Crystal Brame. Her husband, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, fatally shot Crystal, then himself in April 2003.

THE DEFENDANTS: City of Tacoma, Mayor Bill Baarsma, former City Manager Ray Corpuz and former assistant police chief Catherine Woodard

NATURE OF CLAIM: Wrongful death and negligence – the family claims city officials knew of Brame’s increasingly erratic behavior before the shootings, but did nothing to stop him.

CLAIM AMOUNT: $75 million

VENUE: King County Superior Court, Kent

TRIAL DATE: March 6, 2006

CASE STATUS: In discovery

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486