In a rare move, the Washington State Court of Appeals has reversed itself and reinstated a wrongful-death lawsuit against the King County Sheriff’s Office over the 2016 fatal shooting of Renee Davis, a 23-year-old pregnant mother of three, by deputies asked to check on her welfare.
A three-member panel of judges from Division One of the Court of Appeals panel found that the trial judge erred in dismissing the claim based on a state law that prohibits people who were engaged in the commission of a felony from filing state personal injury claims. The Sheriff’s Office claimed that Davis had a handgun and pointed it at the deputies, which amounted to felony assault and precluded her survivors from filing a wrongful death claim.
However, the Court of Appeals rejected that argument, saying a jury should be allowed to decide whether Davis actually had the intent to injure anyone — a requisite element to prove assault. Evidence developed during an investigation and inquest showed that Davis, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, was suicidal, suffering from a mental crisis and that a handgun found near her body was unloaded. According to testimony, she stated, “It’s not even loaded” as she slumped over and fell off the bed after the deputies shot her.
Moreover, there was conflicting testimony over where the gun was located and whether one of the deputies moved it after the shooting.
The same panel of judges had rejected Davis’s appeal in October. The court reversed itself on Monday, on a motion by Davis’ attorneys, and remanded the case to trial in King County Superior Court.
One of Davis’ attorneys, Gabe Galanda, called the ruling “great news.”
“Renee needed a welfare check. Instead, two sheriff’s deputies shot her dead,” Galanda said in a statement. “The appeals court rightly zeroed in on the deputies’ ‘conflicting testimony’ about a number of material facts, most notably their allegation that she pointed a firearm at them, which of course Renee is not alive to refute.”
Ted Buck an attorney representing the deputies involved, said the appellate court “appears to have overlooked” an admission by the plaintiffs that Davis pointed the weapon at the officers intending to force them to shoot her.
“The law is clear that officers are justified in using deadly force where they perceive an imminent risk of death or significant bodily harm to themselves or others,” Buck said. “The only evidence establishes these officers faced that exact risk.”
He said the deputies were “considering their response to this apparent error/oversight.”
“In granting summary judgment, the trial court relied on the testimony of deputies [Nicholas] Pritchett and [Timothy] Lewis, that Davis pointed a weapon at them, to infer her intent to commit felony assault,” wrote Division One Appeals Court Chief Judge David Mann. “This was error.”
Mann was joined by judges Marlin Appelwick and John Chun in the unanimous opinion.
“As the [Davis] estate argues, the evidence in the record before us raises numerous questions of fact over whether Davis intended to commit an assault,” the court found, including conflicting testimony of the deputies about the location of the firearm, whether Davis actually pointed the weapon at them and her dying statement that the gun wasn’t loaded.
“While a jury might find the officers’ testimony credible and Davis’s act of pointing the gun demonstrates her intent to commit an assault, it might also conclude to the contrary,” the appeals court said.
The lawsuit was filed by Rose Davis, the sister of Renee Davis, who was shot to death by Lewis and Pritchett on Oct. 21, 2016. It also names as plaintiffs the woman’s three young children, who are represented by a guardian ad litem.
The lawsuit claims that Davis, who lived and worked on the Muckleshoot reservation, was suicidal and that statements she had made to her boyfriend that night made him concerned enough to seek out Pritchett, who was parked near the tribe’s powwow grounds, and ask the deputy to check on her. Pritchett and Lewis responded to Davis’ home in the Skopabsh Village neighborhood on the reservation, which contracts with King County for law-enforcement services.
The deputies were let into the house by Davis’s 3-year-old son, who was in the house with another young child. Davis, who was five months pregnant, had a third child who was at a friend’s house, according to court documents.
The deputies kicked in the door to the bedroom where Davis was lying on the bed, a blanket up to her neck. One of the deputies snatched the blanket away, to reveal Davis had a handgun in one hand, and the pistol’s magazine in the other, according to testimony and the court opinion.
Lewis reportedly told her to drop the weapon, while Pritchett said he attempted to back up.
“Both officers testified that she raised the gun and pointed it directly at them — apparently at the same time,” according to the opinion. “Both Lewis and Pritchett fired their weapons. Three bullets hit Davis,” who slumped off the bed onto the floor, saying the gun wasn’t loaded.
There was conflicting testimony over whether the deputies took the firearm from her hand or whether it was found on the bed.
In addition to the state wrongful death claim, the family has also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the deputies and the county.
Even though King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit — now reinstated by the Court of Appeals — she stated on the record that it appeared to her that the deputies “did everything possible to escalate the situation as opposed to taking reasonable steps to de-escalate the situation and to prevent the need to shoot Ms. Davis.”
A six-member King County Coroner’s Inquest jury in 2017 found Davis posed a threat to the deputies when they fired, but half of the jury found the deputies showed no concern for her welfare.
Correction: A previous version of this story said attorney Ted Buck represented King County. He only represents the deputies involved in the case.