Solid Ground argued that, as a housing provider, it didn’t have a legal duty to protect the pregnant mother of four against harm beyond its control, including deterioration of her mental health and police violence.
A King County judge on Friday dismissed the nonprofit agency that provided housing to Charleena Lyles from a wrongful-death lawsuit, ruling that Solid Ground can’t be held legally liable for her fatal shooting by two Seattle police officers last year.
The decision by Superior Judge Julie Spector leaves the city of Seattle and the two officers as the defendants in the suit brought by Lyles’ estate and the appointed guardian for her four children.
Solid Ground was added in December to the suit, accused of failing weeks before the June 18 shooting to report to police a playground incident in which Lyles allegedly threatened children with a knife. Solid Ground defended its handling of that matter.
The suit also alleged Solid Ground failed to provide adequate services for Lyles and failed to alert outside agencies after she moved into its Sand Point housing campus in Northeast Seattle in November 2015 and displayed signs of deteriorating mental health.
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Lyles, 30, was shot on June 18 by Seattle police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew after she reported a burglary and, according to the officers, suddenly attacked them with one or two knives. Her death sparked protests, including allegations the shooting was racially motivated because Lyles was African American and both officers are white.
In court papers, attorneys for Solid Ground argued that, as a housing agency, Solid Ground didn’t have a legal duty to protect Lyles against harm beyond its control, including deterioration of her mental health and police violence.
“Charleena Lyles was tragically killed by two police officers,” the attorneys wrote. “Rightfully, those officers and the City of Seattle are the primary defendants in this lawsuit.”
At a court hearing Friday, Spector agreed with the attorneys that the plaintiffs had failed to show Solid Ground’s actions were a proximate cause of Lyles’ death.
Even if Solid Ground theoretically owed a duty, Spector said, the police actions, by law, supersede Solid Ground’s conduct.
In a statement released after the hearing, Solid Ground said: “This past year has been difficult for the Lyles family and the whole community. While this step is over for us, there’s still a lot of pain among the family, Sand Point residents, staff and volunteers, and the greater community. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen for many people. We will move forward with our focus on the healing work that is ahead.”
As part of its motion to be dismissed, Solid Ground argued no Washington court has ever held that a housing provider like Solid Ground owed its residents a special duty of care.
In addition, as a public policy matter, holding Solid Ground responsible would risk “imperiling the very services” the plaintiffs fault Solid Ground for allegedly not providing, the attorneys argued.
Other agencies such as food banks and the YMCA would be vulnerable, Andrea Delgadillo Ostrovsky told Spector during the hearing.
After the hearing, Karen Koehler, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “Clearly we believe that the police are at fault. The question was always: Is somebody else at fault? … Morally, I would think, right, that Solid Ground failed Charleena Lyles. Legally, the judge just ruled, legally they didn’t. But morally they certainly did.”