A federal jury has awarded two residents of Roy a total of $3.26 million for injuries suffered when, during a drunken joy ride, they were shot by one of the Pierce County town’s two police officers.
The verdict is one of the largest reached in the Western District of Washington involving a nonfatal police shooting. The jury found Officer Chris Johnson used excessive force when he fired four rounds into the cab of a small four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle, striking driver David Rice, 47, in the groin and shoulder, resulting in life-threatening injuries. His nephew and passenger Seth Donahue, 23, was struck in the wrist.
The verdict, which came after a 13-day trial before a jury in federal court in Tacoma, awarded $2,208,000 to Rice and $1,049,000 to Donahue.
Johnson, who evidence showed had once been expelled from the state police academy for drinking, claimed he was struck by the vehicle after he got out of his police car and tried to stop it after a pursuit in a snowstorm. The plaintiffs claim they didn’t know they were being chased and that Johnson ambushed them at an intersection while they were on their way home.
Expert testimony and surveillance video from a nearby business introduced at trial showed the officer did not have his emergency lights on and that he shined a spotlight into the interior of the Polaris RZR — which Rice said blinded him — before firing.
During the trial, it was revealed that Johnson returned to work almost immediately after the shooting, before the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department completed its criminal investigation into the incident. Testimony showed that Roy police Chief Darwin Armitage did not conduct an internal investigation into his only employee, although there were obvious possible policy violations, including a ban on shooting into moving vehicles.
Roy Mayor Rawlin “Anthony” McDaniel testified at trial that Johnson could work for the city “however long as he likes.”
“Both expert testimony and the video call into question the officer’s account of the shooting,” said plaintiff’s lawyer Christopher Dolan, a San Francisco trial lawyer brought in to try the case a week before the jury was empaneled.
He said Thursday that evidence showed the Roy Police Department and Pierce County failed to pursue evidence that called into question Johnson’s claim that the vehicle struck him, and that his story changed. Initially, Johnson reported that the RZR “almost took me out,” and then later broadcast, “They hit me.”
Investigators collected the two victims’ clothing for evidence, but did not retrieve the officer’s uniform, which could have confirmed that he was hit, Dolan said. Johnson did not suffer any injuries, according to documents and testimony at trial.
Dolan argued Johnson violated the city’s pursuit and deadly force policies and that any threat he faced that would have justified the shooting was the result of the officer’s own actions — stepping in front of the moving vehicle and trying to stop it.
In his testimony and in court documents, Johnson claimed he wound up on the hood of the RZR after he was struck and he fired two rounds through the windshield and then two more through the side window after he slid off as the vehicle passed him. The RZR had been modified with a closed passenger compartment.
However, there was no gunpowder residue on the windows, indicating the shots were fired from a distance. The surveillance video showed Johnson running toward the RZR with his arms extended as if in a “shooter’s stance,” the lawyer said.
“Any exigent circumstance that existed that might have justified a use of force was of the officer’s own making,” Dolan said. “The jury got the importance of the need to balance power and call out this kind of brutality.”
Ann Trivett, one of the attorneys representing the officer and the city, said in a statement: “We respect the legal process and appreciate the time and effort that went into this trial.
“We also appreciate that this is a very challenging environment for law enforcement officers,” she said. “We are in the process of evaluating our appellate options.”
Telephone and email messages seeking comment from Johnson, Mayor McDaniel and Chief Armitage were not returned.
Outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and deaths of several individuals in Washington at the hands of police — including Manny Ellis in March 2020 in Tacoma — spurred the Legislature this past session to pass sweeping police reform and accountability measures. Controversial shootings have resulted in several large settlements, including $5 million to the family of Tommy Le, killed by a King County deputy in 2017, and $2.25 million for the 2017 shooting death of teenager Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens by King County detectives.
That same year, a federal jury awarded more than $15 million to the family of Leonard Thomas, a Black father who was killed by Lakewood police during a SWAT standoff four years earlier.
Evidence showed that in 2017, Johnson was kicked out of his class at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center for drinking the night before graduation. He had no prior law enforcement experience and had applied for a position vacated by a friend, who went to work at another department. Johnson was the only candidate considered, according to court documents.
The city then paid to send him through the academy a second time, according to court pleadings.
“He shouldn’t have been given a second chance,” Dolan said. “We’re not going to give him a third.”
According to extensive court pleadings, Rice and Donahue — both lifelong Roy residents — had started drinking the afternoon of Feb. 9, 2019, the day of an unusually heavy snowfall, according to testimony. They went to several local taverns and then retrieved Rice’s modified RZR to drive in the snow about 9 p.m.
The lawsuit said there was little or no pedestrian or vehicle traffic and that they spun “doughnuts” and, as Dolan put it, “drifted” around corners. They went to another tavern, tried to buy cigarettes at a closed convenience store, and then headed home, driving southbound on seldom-used railroad tracks.
They claimed they didn’t know that Johnson had witnessed their antics and took up pursuit. The windows were fogged, Rice said, and the little vehicle was noisy.
Johnson, who had initially radioed that he was in pursuit, turned off his emergency lights and set up to intercept the RZR at a cross street. As it approached, he pulled forward, turned on his spotlight and jumped from his patrol car and ran toward the moving vehicle.
Rice and Donahue both testified they did not know they were being chased by police and Rice said the spotlight blinded him. He sped from the area after the gunfire because he said he didn’t know who had shot him.
Rice said the jury’s decision “vindicates me and my nephew: we were out just having fun in the snow, we didn’t threaten anyone, hurt anyone, and were just about home when he ambushed us and shot us.
“I’m a hunter and you couldn’t even shoot a deer this way without it being a crime,” he said. “The city of Roy has lied about what happened.” He called for Johnson’s resignation.