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Washington State pays largest wrongful-death settlement

Posted on Dec 16, 2005

State pays largest wrongful-death settlement KAREN HUCKS; The News Tribune Published: December 16th, 2005 02:30 AM The state of Washington agreed Thursday to pay the family of Paula Joyce $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed officials caused Joyce’s death by not properly watching the ex-convict who killed her in 1997. It is the largest wrongful-death settlement ever paid by the state and brings an end to years of legal wrangling over whether the Department of Corrections officials were responsible for Joyce’s death, and how much they should pay if they were. The Tacoma wife and mother of four died Aug. 8, 1997, when her pickup was struck by a stolen Chevy Suburban driven by Valdez Stewart. Stewart, an ex-convict under state supervision, was speeding through Tacoma, smoking pot and running red lights. He was convicted of second-degree murder. Joyce’s husband, Stephen Joyce, sued the state in 1999, saying his wife wouldn’t have died if people had been paying sufficient attention to Stewart. A jury in 2000 agreed and awarded the family $22.5 million, but the State Supreme Court overturned the award in September because of a faulty jury instruction. The Court did, however, affirm the Department of Corrections’ duty to closely watch offenders in the community. Jack Connelly, the lawyer for the family, said the family might have won more in another trial, but insurance companies had threatened to drag it out for years, and the case has never been about money, anyway. “It’s about putting a focus on what the DOC is doing,” Connelly said. “This was an office in Seattle that wasn’t doing its supervision. When you don’t supervise at all, this is what happens.” Assistant attorney general Glen Anderson said the state wasn’t admitting fault, but settled the case to avoid the risk of going back to trial. “We were successful in getting the $22.5 million (jury award) reversed, but it was going back for another trial,” he said. “We still believe that this case was about and always has been about whether it’s reasonable to hold the department liable for an auto accident when that’s not why the department is supervising the offender. We lost that argument in the Supreme Court, and it’s foreseeable that the jurors may have agreed.” “We need to put this case behind us and move on,” said Anderson, who worked on the settlement along with Michael Lynch and Michael Tardif. Attorney General Rob McKenna issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying Joyce’s death was a tragic accident. “Everyone involved in this case feels enormous sympathy for the Joyce family and we’re all relieved that finally, eight years after the accident, we’ve reached an agreement that will bring resolution to the litigation,” McKenna said. The larger issue is about policy, and the legislature has to address that, he said. Most of the money – $6,450,000 – will be paid by insurance companies. The remaining $50,000 will come from the state’s self-insurance fund. The Department of Corrections issued a news release Thursday afternoon, saying officials there believe the settlement is in the best interests of the state and the Joyce family. DOC representatives hope now that the lawsuit is over, they can meet with Stephen Joyce to hear his perspectives on the department’s efforts to supervise offenders, and the changes that have taken place in the past five years. Stewart was 21 when he crashed into Paula Joyce’s pickup at North 21st Street and Union Avenue. He was on supervision for a 1995 assault conviction – he beat his pregnant girlfriend and put a gun to her head – and a 1996 conviction for possession of stolen property. By the time Joyce died, Stewart had violated his release conditions more than 100 times, though his community corrections officers had filed only three violation reports with the courts. Connelly, who represented the Joyce family along with attorney Darrell Cochran, called it a victory for the family and for the residents of Washington.. “This settlement is just and fair for the Joyce family,” Connelly said. “This case put a spotlight on an important area of government. The people of Washington state spend a lot of money for the proper supervision of felons who have been released from prison. The public deserves accountability and they deserve to know if DOC is exercising reasonable care in attempted to do its job. That didn’t happen here.” Joyce, a track star at Shelton High School, graduated first in her high school class. She went on to the University of Puget Sound, and became a physical therapist and athletic trainer. Her four children, which include twins, were 2, 5 and 8 when she died, and are now 10, 14 and 16. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson approved the settlement Thursday.

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