A hefty $15.1 million jury verdict against the Lakewood Police Department in Washington, its chief and two officers for the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man was the result of prejudicial “racially charged trial themes,” city attorneys claim.
Now, the family of Leonard Thomas and the Lakewood PD are set to meet with a mediator in hopes that the two parties can hammer out a revised settlement before a judge’s ruling.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein referred the case to a mediator last week after city lawyers asked her to trim the total verdict by more than 80 percent, or grant them a new trial, The Seattle Times reported. Lawyers argued that the $15.1 million settlement to the Thomas family was excessive and that the jury was influenced by community sentiments about police excessive force against Black Americans.
“Defendants were saddled with the impossible burden of defending not only this case but also the ubiquitous [and] unsubstantiated narratives that the police are allegedly targeting African-Americans for excessive force,” attorney Brian Augenthaler wrote.
“It is apparent that the jury was inflamed as a result of the unchecked, factually devoid theory that Leonard was yet another ‘unarmed‘ African-American man shot by police,” he added.
Thomas was shot and killed by authorities on May 24, 2013 after a misdemeanor domestic violence assault snowballed into a four-hour SWAT standoff at his home. The pricey verdict, which is probably the largest civil-rights verdict ever in the Western District of Washington, came in July after a three-week civil trial over the deadly shooting.
Jurors singled out Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, Sgt, Brian Markert and Officer Michael Wiley to pay punitive damages for their roles in Thomas’ death; Zaro served as the incident commander that day while Wiley headed an assault team. Meanwhile, Markert was a sniper armed with a powerful rifle.
The Lakewood City Council could vote to indemnify the officers and cover their punitive damages, but it hasn’t moved to do so yet, according to the newspaper.
“In the case of [Lakewood Police] Chief Zaro, $3 million in punitive damage … is not mere punishment, it is the financial equivalent of a death sentence,” Augenthaler wrote.
He added that the punitive damages levied against Markert ($2 million) and Wiley ($1.5 million) were beyond what the two officers could ever pay, as the verdict, which included $8.6 million in compensatory damages, wouldn’t be covered city’s insurance. Instead, he said the city would be willing to pay Thomas’ family and estate $2.4 million, in addition to $720,046 in punitive damages divvied up between the three officers.
A seven-member jury ultimately ruled in Thomas’ family’s favor and awarded $4 million in compensatory damages to his now 9-year-old son, $1.885 million to his estate and $1.375 million both his mother and father.
At the time of the deadly incident, Thomas was drunk and off of his medication for bipolar disorder. Throughout the ordeal, the 30-year-old man, as well as his family, repeatedly told negotiators he was unarmed, The Seattle Times reported. No guns were found in the home.
Lawyers for Thomas’ family haven’t yet commented on Rothstein’s order to send the verdict to arbitration. City leaders have also declined to speak about their legal position.