Special Reports

Taxpayers may pay bulk of Brame claim

Taxpayers ultimately may bear the bulk of any settlement or jury award in a $75 million wrongful death claim filed against Tacoma by the family of Crystal Brame, city officials said Monday.

The city is largely self-insured against such claims, meaning its various departments all pay into a pool of money from which settlements are paid, city communications director Carol Mathewson said.

She couldn't say Monday how much money is in that pool.

The city also has a $5 million excess liability policy that kicks in after the first $3 million of an award is paid.

That means the city is responsible for the first $3 million of any settlement or judgment and anything paid out beyond $8 million.

The claim filed Monday is the first step toward a lawsuit by the family of Crystal Brame, who was shot to death by her estranged husband, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame.

Tacoma City Council members will meet behind closed doors today to talk about the claim and discuss hiring outside legal counsel to deal with it.

Mayor Bill Baarsma said city staff members were working to get council members copies of the claim Monday afternoon in advance of their discussions today. State laws allow city councils to talk about litigation in executive sessions, which are closed to the public.

The city's legal staff can't handle the matter because some of its members are listed in the claim and because the City Council has waived attorney-client privilege so the city's attorneys can talk publicly about the Brame case, Mathewson said.

Hundreds of claims for damages - the first step in filing a lawsuit against a municipality - are filed against Tacoma every year, Mathewson said, but they typically range only in the hundreds of dollars.

The bottom line: Taxpayers' dollars ultimately fund settlements and jury awards for everything from someone who trips on a buckled sidewalk to a pedestrian hit by a police car.

In the city's experience, $75 million is a large claim for damages.

It's about 45 percent of the $167.9 million in the city's general fund this year. That's the account that pays for everything from basic services, including police and fire protection, to employee's salaries.

Tacoma's two-year, 2003-2004 general fund budget totals about $335.8 million.

Mathewson didn't know the amount of the largest personal injury claim ever filed against - or paid out by - Tacoma. But Human Resources Director Phil Knudsen told her he recalled one in which a total of $5 million was paid by the city's self-insurance pool and excess liability carrier.

Multimillion dollar lawsuits against cities, particularly in police actions or violations of civil rights, are not unusual, said Paul Chasco, assistant director for insurance services at the Washington Association of Cities.

The city's extra insurance policy limit was much larger - $20 million - until recent years, when insurance rates skyrocketed, Mathewson said.

The city now pays the same amount for its $5 million in excess insurance coverage as it did for $20 million in coverage a few years ago.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659