Seattle Settles BLM Protesters' Police Brutality Suit For $10M

By Rachel Riley | January 25, 2024, 8:13 PM EST ·

The city of Seattle has agreed to a $10 million settlement to end a lawsuit brought by more than 50 protesters who say they were brutalized by its police force during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020.

The protesters claimed police responded to their peaceful calls for racial justice with excessive force, firing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and blast balls as they rallied on city streets following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The city agreed to the $10 million settlement on Tuesday, according to a Wednesday announcement by Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, who called the resolution "the best financial decision for the City considering risk, cost, and insurance."

"The case has been a significant drain on the time and resources of the city and would have continued to be so through an estimated three-month trial that was scheduled to begin in May," Davison said in a statement.

King County Superior Court Judge Sandra Widlan sided with a protester on partial summary judgment last week, agreeing that the city could not defend her claims by arguing she had assumed the risk that she might be injured during a confrontation with police. The judge recognized the protester was "exercising her constitutional rights to speech and assembly."

Plaintiffs firm Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore said in a news release that the litigation had unearthed evidence that police had violated their own policies, used tear gas and projectiles without proper training, and mocked and assaulted protesters.

One person went into cardiac arrest when she was hit with a projectile, according to the firm. A veteran who walked with a cane was allegedly tackled and teargassed. Others allegedly suffered permanent hearing loss, broken bones, concussions, wounds, bruising and lasting emotional damage, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Karen Koehler, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the city's then-mayor and chief of police also intentionally deleted hundreds of text messages during the historic protests, violating the state Public Records Act and erasing evidence.

As of Jan. 10, the group's claims included negligence, assault and battery, biased policing in violation of city code and public accommodation discrimination under state law, spanning more than 60 incidents over the course of nine months, court records show. About a dozen of the protesters also claimed they were wrongfully arrested during the demonstrations.

The city filed a motion last week requesting that the claims be tried in three phases over the course of 10 weeks, saying there's "no conceivable way for a jury to track the fact-specific inquiries necessary to make determinations regarding each of the plaintiffs' four or more causes of action in a single trial."

According to the city's motion, the earliest claims stem from events on May 30, 2020, after a peaceful downtown protest involving thousands of people "transitioned to significant riot behavior, with widespread looting and fires." Other encounters between protesters and police occurred in a protest zone in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, drawing national media attention.

The suit, first filed in September 2020, covered hundreds of interactions between the protesters and law enforcement, and involved more than a million pages of records and upwards of 10,000 videos, according to the city attorney's statement. Under the settlement, the city admitted no fault.

"This settlement resolves the majority of the remaining claims arising out of the 2020 demonstration period and is a big step toward allowing the City to focus on the important work of today, while moving forward from events four years ago," Davison said.

Since the first version of the suit was filed, the scope of the litigation has narrowed, with some protesters' claims being dismissed. Judge Widlan granted the city partial summary judgment in December, agreeing to toss most of the claims brought by one plaintiff.

The protesters are represented by Karen Koehler, Shannon Kilpatrick, Furhad Sultani, Debora Silberman, Melanie Nguyen, Lisa Benedetti, Gemma Zanowski and Fred Rabb of Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore.

The city is represented by Ghazal Sharifi and Joseph Groshong of the Seattle City Attorney's Office, and Mark S. Filipini, Martha J. Dawson, G. William Shaw, Kari L. Vander Stoep and Ryan J. Groshong of K&L Gates LLP.

The case is Zoe Adberg et al. v City of Seattle, case no. 20-2-14351-1, in King County Superior Court, Washington.

--Editing by Scott Russell.

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