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More legal fallout for Seattle’s handling of months of unrest: 50 protesters suing for personal injury, wrongful death, and civil rights violations

The July 4th medical response on I-5 (Image: @nowah_j)

Protesters and family members of Summer Taylor filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the state for personal injury, wrongful death, and civil rights violations during Black Lives Matter protests. The lawsuit was filed in September. 50 plaintiffs, including journalists, protesters, and family members of the Capitol Hill activist hit and killed by a speeding driver on I-5 are represented by Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore and Cedar Law PLLC. A new claim was filed Thursday on behalf of one of Cedar’s clients who they say was injured by police while protesting in the East Precinct Wednesday night. While being arrested out of a group of protesters on suspicion of a property crime, Kel Murphy-DuFord was slammed to the ground by officers. His attorneys say witnesses heard the crack on impact and saw his head hit the pavement hard. Murphy-DuFord is currently receiving care at Harborview where he is now listed in satisfactory condition according to a hospital spokesperson.

Police say Murphy-DuFord may have suffered a medical episode “related to a substance the subject had ingested prior to police contact” but offered no further details, an account his lawyers say is “designed to turn public attention away from police misconduct and towards a victim who currently is unable to speak or stand up for himself.”

The lawsuit is part of a wave of legal fallout from the City of Seattle’s response to months of Black Lives Matter protests. The largest could be a lawsuit brought by a collection of Capitol Hill real estate developers, property owners, and small businesses suing the city over the CHOP protest zone. In October, CHS reported on a key decision by a federal judge in the case allowing the suit to move forward. The SKKM and Cedar cases could also be costly for the city.

 

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After SKKM and Cedar filed the initial lawsuit in September, the city requested a continuance through December 16. According to SKKM attorney Karen Koehler, the city claimed delays due to COVID-19 as a reason why they needed more time. The city has also hired defense firm K&L Gates, “One of the largest defense firms in the world [with] about 2,000 lawyers,” Koehler said. “I will be fascinated to see how many millions of dollars they pay them. Meanwhile, half of our clients we’re representing for free, pro bono. [The city] will do everything they can to get the case thrown out. I think they’ll have a hard time. They’ll try to get parts of it thrown out.”

The lawsuit is over 100 pages long, and cites litigation in past protests, like when thousands of UW students marched down the I-5 in protest against the Kent State Massacre in 1970, and the WTO demonstrations in 1999. “Those [WTO] protests did not get handled well and that lawsuit was won by the protesters,” Koehler said. “You would think that some of the lessons learned from WTO would have been implemented, that Seattle police in particular would not be resuming unlawful activity found to be improper by the courts. So here we are again.”

SKKM and Cedar allege that SPD targeted the plaintiffs because they were protesting about racial issues, which in addition to violating first amendment rights, is also unlawful retaliation according to the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). Typically used in employment litigation, the WLAD is a different body of law separate from the constitution. “[It] prohibits discrimination against people who are standing up for the protected class. It’s a retaliation-based claim under the WLAD,” Koehler explained.

Koehler anticipates that by December 16, the city and state will send SKKM and Cedar “probably thousands of pages of documents, and I’m assuming a lot of video cam footage,” and then within 20 days they will answer the complaint, or bring a motion to dismiss parts of it. When the lawsuit was filed in September, 30-40 protesters were still within the 60-day waiting period for their claims to be up. By December 16, most of those waiting periods will end, bringing the plaintiff count to 50.

“This case is still really getting off the ground,” Dan Nolte, Communications Director for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, told CHS. “The parties are still coordinating on initial pleading deadlines, discovery deadlines, etc.”

Gregory being helped after the shooting at 11th and Pine

Plaintiffs allege SPD used unconstitutional excessive force and militarized tactics, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and blast balls against peaceful protesters. One of the plaintiffs is Daniel Gregory, who was shot while trying to stop a car from driving through protesters on Capitol Hill. Another protester, Aisling Cooney, said she was thrown against a wall, wrongfully arrested, and mocked and antagonized during her detainment. Personal injuries suffered by other plaintiffs include chemical burns from pepper spray and tear gas, bone contusions, nerve and muscle damage, temporary blindness, concussion and loss of consciousness, false imprisonment, and assault.

In all accounts from her clients, Koehler heard hardly any evidence of police using de-escalation tactics. “It’s almost like the excuse is ‘Well there were people in the crowd who threw a water bottle at us, and therefore we were justified in pepper spraying everybody.’ It seems ludicrous to me,” Koehler said. “I have to say, we are not anti-police. But the police response that’s occurred in these protests has not been admirable. The stories from our clients, just one after the other, are just painful to listen to and it’s extremely sad because so many of them are idealists who went out there to dissent, to protest, to try and make a difference, and were just attacked.”

 

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