Federal Way will pay upwards of $655,000 for the city’s appeal of a lawsuit verdict, which found Federal Way police guilty of using excessive force during the arrest of Josiah Hunter in 2014.
The authorization of payment was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Federal Way City Council.
In September 2014, Hunter and his friend Junior Beausilien drove to a Federal Way gas station at S. 320th Street and Pacific Highway South. While at the gas station, the two witnessed a head-on DUI accident. Before police arrived, he and a friend approached the wreck to “see if everyone was OK” and tried to help occupants of the cars, the Mirror previously reported.
When police arrived, an officer asked Hunter and his friend to step back.
A statement later made by Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang said the suspected DUI driver had tried to leave the scene, and the collision had damaged the light pole and it was not stable.
“For safety reasons, the lone officer directed the crowd to step away,” Hwang said. “Two men, ages 21 and 22, later identified as [Junior] Beausilien and Hunter, did not comply.”
The lawsuit states Hunter and his friend stepped back, but continued to watch. It was then that officers yelled at Hunter to move farther back.
Hunter said he was following all commands given, and out of nowhere was choked from behind by Officer Kris Durell, who reported that he put Hunter in a chokehold, referred to as a “vascular neck restraint” by Federal Way police, before his arrest, the Mirror previously reported.
With attorney James Bible of James Bible Law Group in Bellevue, Hunter sought damages for assault, unlawful arrest, excessive force and tort of outrage. A jury verdict found the Federal Way officer’s arrest of Hunter did utilize excessive force and Hunter was awarded $640,000.
The city of Federal Way appealed the case to the United States Ninth Circuit, which upheld the district’s verdict.
“The police department obviously strongly — maybe not obviously — but the police department strongly disagreed with how the facts were characterized by the plaintiff at trial,” said Ryan Call, city attorney for Federal Way during the video conference council meeting on April 21.
Federal Way police conducted their own internal investigation and were “satisfied” with their own findings that the involved officers used appropriate force and followed the department’s rules, Call said.
“We defended the police officers in this matter as thoroughly as we could,” he said.
Now, the city must pay the judgment, which includes associated attorney’s fees and court-imposed interest on the judgment during the appeal.
The City of Federal Way is liable for $655,117 total, plus an interest amount of about $24,000.
Total damages amount to $400,000 with $255,117 in legal fees. Interest is calculated upon day of payment.
“Ultimately, the city believes Officer Durell’s testimony that Mr. Hunter was resisting at the time force was used to effect his lawful arrest,” said Tyler Hemstreet, communications coordinator for the mayor’s office. The city defends the belief that Officer Durell applied the vascular neck restraint properly and without causing any injury to Hunter, Hemstreet added.
The trial judge ruled that the amount of the punitive damages exceeded an amount that is lawfully defensible and reduced it to $360,000, down from $600,000.
Officer Durell was not disciplined as a result of this incident, nor will he be personally responsible for paying any portion of the $40,000 in general damages or the $360,000 in punitive damages, Hemstreet said.
The money to pay the judgment will come from the risk fund, where the city keeps the budgeted funds to handle uninsured losses or losses below the city’s loss threshold. The money will be paid in the next few weeks, according to the city.
Five years ago, the city left the Washington Cities Insurance Authority insurance pool to be “self-insured,” meaning the city was purchasing excess coverage (losses of more than $250,000) and paying for everything else out of a risk fund, Hemstreet said.
“After five years of trying this out, we have concluded that it is easier to manage risk and budget by going back to the insurance pool (WCIA) under a zero deductible program,” he said. “This means we pay a higher annual deductible, but there is no loss threshold.”
The city’s analysis of the past five years of losses has shown being in the insurance pool (as many cities are) will save money.