Special Reports

Tacoma a long way from paying out on Brame death claim

Tacoma residents may be suffering sticker shock at the prospect of a $75 million wrongful death claim in the David Brame case.

But the city "is a long way from paying" that much money, Spokane risk manager Liz Christiansen said. To attorneys, "picking a limit (for a claim) is like throwing a dart at a dart board."

"There's usually not any relationship to anything other than the shock value," she said.

She and other Northwest municipal risk managers point out that filing a claim or a lawsuit - and winning one - are entirely different matters.

"People put all kinds of amounts on those claims when they first file them," said Kent Rock, city treasurer and risk manager of Boise, Idaho. "We had one guy file a claim for three trillion dollars."

Large amounts, like the $75 million wrongful death claim filed against Tacoma this week by the family of Crystal Brame, do get the public's attention. That's exactly what some attorneys want.

But at the same time, the possibility of such claims makes it difficult for local governments to know how much insurance they need, risk managers say.

Lawyers taking on a big defendant also must rely on guesswork to some extent.

"You know that whatever amount you put in the claim, the actual amount will be determined by a judge and 12 people who are taxpayers here," said Paul Luvera, who is representing Crystal Brame's family.

"It isn't like you put down that amount and they have to write you a check for it."

When families bring a case like the Brame case, they want to help prevent the same mistakes from happening again, Tacoma civil attorney Jack Connelly said. "You want people to sit up and take notice," he added.

For their part, local governments work hard to maintain the right amount of insurance - and to see that their employees do everything right, Rock said. "But people are people," he added. "They do make mistakes. You hope the mistakes are not big ones."

Crystal Brame's family contends Tacoma was partially at fault for her death because city officials mishandled David Brame's career, ignoring signs along the way that could have presaged his deadly rage. Brame fatally shot Crystal, then committed suicide with his department-issued handgun on April 26.

All local governments either set aside a pool of money as self insurance, buy liability insurance or do a combination of both against just such charges. But deciding how much insurance a local government needs can involve the same kind of estimation consumers use to decide how much auto or homeowners' insurance they can afford, says Mike Panagiotu, risk manager for Pierce County.

Tacoma dropped its liability policy limits from $20 million to $5 million after insurance premiums skyrocketed last summer. The city's now paying $280,755 a year for $5 million in excess liability insurance, city officials said. A year ago, the premium was $331,776 for $20 million.

"There are choices you have to make," said Tacoma City Councilman Doug Miller, a member of the Risk Management Service Agency board for the Association of Washington Cities. "You either make sacrifices and cut important services, or you reduce your coverage."

And with a $19 million budget shortfall on the horizon, "Tacoma took a chance," Miller said.

That was the prudent course of action, Panagiotu said. "We all used to carry $20 million" until the rates went up, he explained.

Spokane now has a $10 million liability policy, with a $500,000 deductible, risk manager Christiansen said. Boise carries a $5 million excess liability policy, Rock said.

"We have been higher," he added. "We were at $10 million until last fall, with the renewals, and we got pushed back down to $5 million." Pierce County is totally self-insured, with a $15 million pool meant to cover any claims the government might face, Panagiotu said.

Tacoma is self-insured for the first $3 million of a claim before its $5 million policy kicks in. But after that $8 million of any judgment is paid, the city has only about a $1 million reserve. A larger judgment would result in higher taxes, budget cuts or some combination of the two, risk managers agree.

Lawyers, meanwhile, differ on whether to consider a defendant's ability to pay when picking a number. "From a practical standpoint, I think it's one of the components you would consider," Connelly said. But it wouldn't be the deciding factor.

Luvera said it's often impossible to do. "When you start off in a case against a municipality the size of Tacoma, you have no idea," he said. "I didn't have any idea they have reduced their (insurance) coverage."

Stone Grissom, a lawyer with the Tacoma firm Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson and Daheim, said lawyers are careful in choosing a claim or lawsuit figure because it could hurt their client if they start too low.

Besides, he added, a city shouldn't be able to "hide behind their checkbook, or lack of checkbook, to shield itself from its negligence."

But Linda Yoshida, who bought a home in Tacoma just two months ago, doesn't think her taxes should go up "because somebody made a big mistake."

"Had that chief of police had his gun and badge taken away, maybe none of this would have happened," she said. "These people are acting like a royal court, and I don't like it," she said of city employees and officials. "They are servants of the people, and they aren't acting like servants of the people."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660


Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659