Verdict shows value of police action team

In 2011, the responsibility of defending Seattle police officers in civil litigation was brought in-house by City Attorney Pete Holmes in an effort to cut costs and more effectively address policy issues.

Previously, the private firm of Stafford Frey Cooper had an exclusive, decades-long contract with the City to do the work. Despite a bruising legal battle with two police unions opposed to the move, Holmes hired "police action attorneys" to defend the officers and the department. Outside counsel, who were identified after an open RFP (request for proposal), are now only assigned to cases where the interests of the City and individual officer(s) conflict.

The transition has been hugely successful, as exemplified by the recent unanimous jury verdict following a seven-day trial in the case of Dedic v. City of Seattle, in which plaintiff's attorneys sought over $1 million.

Fatima Dedic filed a claim, followed by a lawsuit, seeking damages allegedly caused by SPD officers' gross negligence during her arrest as a suspect in a hit-and-run incident. Dedic claimed that the officers were extremely aggressive when placing her into handcuffs, seriously injuring her bursitis-ridden right shoulder and leaving her physically and mentally debilitated.

Police action attorney Christine Olson tried the case to an 11-person King County Superior Court jury in May of this year. Although the original lawsuit only alleged negligence against the City, shortly before trial plaintiff attempted to add numerous federal claims and to name the individual officers as defendants. Olson opposed, and defeated, this attempt.

Olson spent countless hours preparing for trial, going through thousands of pages of records to find game-changing documents.  She drafted numerous pre-trial documents, including jury instructions, trial briefs, the verdict form and witness and exhibit lists.

When the jury selection process began-known as voir dire-Olson sought to identify impartial jurors who harbored no unfair prejudices towards police officers or the SPD.  A vote of 10 of the 11 jurors was required for victory. 

The trial lasted seven days, which is fairly long for this type of case, and 14 witnesses testified. Eight witnesses testified for the plaintiff, including family members, three medical professionals and a police practices expert.  Olson called six witnesses to the stand: the three officers present at the scene of Dedic's arrest, the victim of the hit-and-run, a private investigator and her own police practices expert. 

Perhaps the most publicized part of the trial was the video shot by the private investigator, which Olson presented to the jury. The video showed Dedic shopping, holding large bags and opening doors with her allegedly injured arm. Olson said this is the first time she has used a private investigator; most cases do not require that resource. In this case, Olson was testing the veracity of the plaintiff's extreme claims that she was completely debilitated due to the actions of the police.

Olson believes that while the private investigator video was helpful, other items of evidence were also instrumental in debunking plaintiff's claims. For example, the in-car video of Dedic's arrest suggested that Dedic was not in any pain or distress, and showed that the officers acted professionally. In addition, several state Labor and Industries claims filed by Dedic before her arrest showed that her shoulder injury occurred on the job, and before her arrest.

The City's unanimous jury verdict in this case shows that  the City has competent attorneys who can and will take cases to trial and succeed.