A large part of the settlement — $11.5 million — will be covered by the Washington Cities Insurance Association (WCIA). The city of Lakewood will pay just $1 million in punitive damages, a $5.5 million decrease from the original verdict. The total settlement amount includes the $500,000 Fife already paid.
The city of Lakewood, its police chief and two officers have dropped an appeal of a record $15.1 million jury verdict in the 2013 SWAT-team sniper-death of Leonard Thomas, an unarmed black man who was killed as he clutched his 4-year-old son following a four-hour standoff, and have agreed to pay Thomas’ family $13 million to settle the wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit.
The settlement in the racially charged case leaves in place the July 2017 unanimous verdict by a jury in U.S. District Court in Seattle finding Lakewood, Fife and members of the Pierce County Metro SWAT team committed 14 separate civil-rights violations that night, including illegal seizure and use of excessive force. The verdict came after a three-week trial and four days of deliberations.
The panel had singled out Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro — then an assistant chief — and Lakewood officers Sgt. Brian Markert and Mike Wiley for punitive damages totaling $6.5 million, finding their actions were particularly egregious and led to Thomas’ unnecessary death. The city has argued that those damages would amount to a “financial death sentence” for the officers.
Lakewood has said it would indemnify the officers.
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Zaro was in command that night and gave the orders that led to the shooting; Markert, the sniper, shot Thomas in the stomach with a precision high-powered rifle; and Wiley led an assault team that blew down the back door of Thomas’ house and killed the family dog, Baxter.
The settlement, which came as the case was being considered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on an appeal by the city, provides that Lakewood will pay just $1 million from its own coffers. The largest portion, $11.5 million, will be paid by the Washington Cities Insurance Authority (WCIA). Fife already settled with the Thomas family and estate for $500,000. The settlement also includes attorneys fees, which added up to nearly $2 million.
Last year, the jury awarded the family the state’s most expensive police deadly force verdict to date. The family settled last month to avoid a prolonged appeal, said Tacoma plaintiff’s attorney John Connelly, who represented the Thomas estate and his 9-year-old son at trial.
“It was set for appeal and would have probably taken another couple of years or longer before ultimately being heard,” said Connolly. “The family accepted $13 million of the judgment, rather than have it drag on.”
Tim Ford, who represents Thomas’ parents, Annalesa and Frederick Thomas, said in a statement the settlement amount “reflects the fact that, for all their lawyers’ bluster after the verdict, when it came down to it the defendants couldn’t come up with an argument that … an appeals court judge was likely to accept.”
It was Annalesa Thomas who had called police that night, seeking to help her son who was intoxicated after being sober for a year and in crisis over the death of a friend. Annalesa Thomas wanted to take the child home, and Thomas — the boy’s legal guardian — argued with her. There was a scuffle and Thomas retreated into the house when police arrived.
Fife called out the Metro Pierce County SWAT team, a multiagency operation that responded with more than 20 heavily armed officers and an armored vehicle, which they drove onto Thomas’ front yard. Over the next four hours, Thomas repeatedly told police to go away and officers agreed he had committed a misdemeanor assault on his mother at best. Thomas never displayed a firearm — there were no guns in the house — and never threatened police or his son, according to testimony at trial.
Still, Zaro ordered a violent breach of the back door of the home just as Thomas had agreed to a hostage negotiator to let the boy go. The defense said that Thomas, who was on the front porch with the boy when the team used explosives to blow down his back door and then shot his dog, reached for the boy. Markert, hidden across the street with a .308 caliber precision rifle, shot Thomas in the belly when he reached for the boy.
Officers testify they had to pry the child out of his dying father’s arms as Thomas, who was bleeding to death, begged them not to hurt his boy.
Markert would provide a written statement that repeatedly referred to the child as a hostage and said he fired to save the boy’s life — a narrative rejected by the verdict and undermined by the fact that trial testimony showed he and Zaro talked about his statement and the shooting before Markert submitted it. Zaro, as the assistant chief, later oversaw the internal investigation into the shooting that cleared everybody involved.
The city of Lakewood released a statement in response to the settlement that focused on ending the appeal and putting the matter in the past.
“This agreement does not erase the events that transpired … or the lasting effects of Mr. Thomas’ death on his family and the police officers involved, but the city hopes it will provide closure and help everyone move forward with the healing process,” the statement says.
A city representative did not respond to questions regarding whether the city would apologize to the Thomas family or whether they still had confidence in Zaro, who remains police chief.
“I think there was lessons to be learned and if those lessons are learned it prevents it from happening in the future,” Connelly said. “I think the city is ignoring those lessons and unfortunately they would rather accept a false story than find out what really happened.”
Over the course of the trial, defendants made many attempts to sway the court their way; they claimed the shooting was justified; they successfully argued to not show jurors an unconscious racial-bias video; said Thomas was choking his son; and even claimed the jury was influenced by heightened race relations within the country.