It took 25 months from beginning to end, but today the Washington State Court of Appeals finally issued a ruling in its review of the dismissal of the Charleena Lyles wrongful death case brought against the City of Seattle and the two police officers who shot and killed her. The appeals court overturned the lower court’s dismissal of the case and set it up to proceed to trial.
Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers in her apartment on June 18, 2017, after she called 911 to report a burglary and then attacked with a knife one of the two officers who responded.
The officers, who are defendants in the case, have made several arguments as to why they should not be held liable for Lyles’ death. Those include:
- Under the “public duty” doctrine, they did not fail to meet their duty to Lyles;
- They are protected under the “felony defense” statute, which holds that they are not liable for someone’s death if the person was committing a felony at the time and the commission of the felony is connected to the cause of death;
- They have “qualified immunity” as they were fulfilling a statutory duty according to procedures dictated to them by their superiors, and they acted reasonably;
- Under the “assumption of risk” doctrine, Lyles assumed the risk that she might be killed by planning and attacking a police officer with a knife;
- They have “discretionary immunity” for taking action within their discretion.
The plaintiffs (the family and representative of Lyles) dispute those defenses. As evidence, they introduced three expert witnesses: two experts on police conduct who asserted that the officers did not act reasonably, and one forensic psychologist who conducted a “psychological autopsy” and concluded that Lyles was in a psychotic state at the time and could not have formed the intent to harm or kill a police officer. The trial court judge, at the defendants’ request, threw out the testimony of the plaintiffs’ three experts, and granted a summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The plaintiffs appealed.
Courts may only grant a summary judgment if none of the material facts are in dispute, and only questions of interpreting the relevant law remain. After having rejected the expert witnesses, the trial court judge found no further issues of fact and proceeded to rule on summary judgment. The appeals court, however, reversed the trial court’s decision to exclude the expert witness testimony, which turned out to be pivotal in addressing the defendants’ arguments for dismissing the case.
On the “public duty” doctrine: the appeals court found that since the officers interacted directly with Lyles, they had a specific duty of care to her. They left it up to a jury to decide whether the officers broke that duty, but they confirmed that the duty exists.
On the “felony defense,” the appeals court noted that commission of a felony requires proving intent to commit it — and if the expert witness is correct, then Lyles could not have formed such intent. Their conclusion was that there were material facts at issue, so a summary judgment on this point was inappropriate, and a decision as to whether the officers are protected by the felony defense will need to wait until a jury weighs the evidence on both sides to determine if Lyles had formed an intent to commit a felony.
On “qualified immunity,” there are two issues. The plaintiffs argued that because one of the officers did not have his taser with him as required by policy, he did not act according to procedures dictated to him; the appeals court concluded that the issue isn’t whether he had it, but whether he would have actually used it if he had — and there was evidence introduced that Lyles was too close to him and had a thick coat on, so based on the officer’s training he would not have used it. This is another issue of fact for the jury to sort out at trial. Second, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses concluded that the officers did not act reasonably; but their word is not gospel, and a jury will need to weigh the credibility and soundness of their testimony, whether they used the correct definition of “reasonable,” and how it compares to contradictory evidence introduced by the defendants.
On “assumption of risk” — at first it seems like a stretch to conclude that Lyles knew she was assuming the risk of being killed; but she had placed a second knife in her pocket, which the defendants suggest demonstrates advance planning. This also wasn’t the first time that Lyles had tried to attack a police officer with a knife, and the defendants argued that this gave her knowledge of the consequences of her actions. Again, that evidence will need to be weighed by a jury against evidence of her mental state at the time.
On “discretionary immunity” — this was the clearest win for the plaintiffs, as the appeals court ruled that discretionary immunity only applies to discretionary acts by government officials “at a basic policy level” and not to a police officer’s actions during an incident.
The appeals court reversed the summary judgment ruling, while only eliminating one of the potential defenses: discretionary immunity. Now the case goes back to the lower court to hold a jury trial (unless the case is settled, or the parties agree to allow the judge to hear the evidence instead of a jury). Once the jury draws conclusions about the evidence, the judge will revisit the remaining potential defenses and decide whether any of them legally protect the defendants. If none of them do, then the jury will then proceed to decide whether the defendants are culpable in the death of Lyles — even if none of the affirmative defenses hold up, the plaintiffs still bear the burden of proving that the defendants acted in a way that makes them liable for Lyles’ death.
How quickly a trial might happen is unclear. There are still several weeks of preparation for the parties, including evidence and witness lists, pre-trial motions, and jury instructions. also, King County Superior Court is just beginning to re-introduce in-person jury trials with appropriate COVID-19 safety social distancing protocols, and there is a substantial backlog of cases to be tried and resolved, so it might be a while before the case sees the inside of a courtroom.