Posts Tagged ‘Judge Ronald Leighton’

In an unsurprising decision, Judge Ronald Leighton declined to reverse himself on rulings he made during the civil trial in which a jury awarded $1 million to the parents of Douglas Ostling against the City of Bainbridge Island. Judge Leighton issued orders today denying the city’s motions for a Judgment as a Matter of Law and for a new trial.

The primary basis on which defense counsel for the city asked the court to invalidate the jury’s verdict and enter Judgment as a Matter of Law is that the jury exonerated Jeff Benkert, who shot and killed Douglas Ostling, and yet found the city liable. The city argued that under applicable case law, a jury cannot hold a municipality liable for constitutional violations as a result of the actions of its employees unless a particular, named employee is found to have violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Because Officer Benkert was exonerated, the defense argued, the city cannot be held liable. (more…)

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This morning in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, attorneys for the City of Bainbridge Island and the family of Douglas Ostling argued the city’s post-trial motions before Judge Ronald Leighton.

In June, a jury awarded $1 million to Bill and Joyce Ostling whose son, Douglas, was shot and killed in 2010 by Bainbridge police officer, Jeff Benkert. The jury found that Benkert did not violate Ostling’s constitutional rights, but nevertheless awarded $1 million against the city for failure to train its officers in dealing with the mentally ill.

The city filed a motion asking Judge Leighton to enter a Judgment as a Matter of Law (which would set aside the jury’s verdict because it was not valid under the law). In a second motion, the city asked for a new trial for former police chief Jon Fehlman, because he was unable to attend trial and testify on his own behalf after he was hospitalized with pancreatitis.

Judge Leighton told the lawyers to focus primarily on the first motion in oral argument, questioning whether Fehlman “plays a role in this at all.” He later elaborated on that statement, saying that Fehlman was “in effect a placeholder” who acted in his official capacity on behalf of the city. Ostling attorney Nathan Roberts agreed, saying Fehlman’s absence from trial didn’t matter because the eventual judgment “will never be against his personal assets.” Roberts suggested that because the city appointed Lt. Phil Hawkins as acting police chief during the trial while Fehlman was ill, Hawkins would have been available to testify and should perhaps have been on the verdict form instead of Fehlman. (more…)

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I’ll be doing a series of posts about the Ostling trial, scheduled to begin on Monday, May 14. I’ll try to give a little context from my point of view as a former corporate lawyer, assisted by my husband, who is a trial lawyer. My intent here is not spin, but understanding.

First up, the city’s summary judgment motion, decided this week by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton. There have been some inaccuracies and confusion in press coverage and Trippwires, so here’s a short guide. If you’d like to bone up on the background, go here.

Judge Leighton’s ruling: The plaintiffs are Douglas Ostling’s estate (represented by his father, William Ostling), William Ostling in his individual capacity, Joyce Ostling (his mother) in her individual capacity and Tamara Ostling (his sister) in her individual capacity. They sued Officer Jeff Benkert for a violation of the fourth amendment, for using excessive force that resulted in the shooting and death of Douglas Ostling, and for violation of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, they sued the City of Bainbridge Island and Chief Jon Fehlman for failing to train officers to deal with the mentally ill, and because they ratified Benkert’s actions.

The city moved for summary judgment on several of the claims. Judge Leighton granted the city’s motion and dismissed the fourth amendment claims of William, Joyce and Tamara Ostling as individuals, for lack of standing. Leighton also dismissed Tamara Ostling’s fourteenth amendment claim, again for lack of standing. He denied the city’s other summary judgment motions, allowing the fourth amendment excessive force claims by Ostling’s estate to go forward, along with William and Joyce Ostling’s fourteenth amendment substantive due process claims. (more…)

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