When 84-year-old Kay Mita got a jury summons, he regarded it as a sign the government was acknowledging a six-decades-old injustice. His first day of jury service, however, turned out to be the last day of his life.
Now the widow and son of a juror who died of exposure on the courthouse steps have filed a $5 million claim with the county, a
possible prelude to a federal lawsuit against the county and Guardsmark
LLC, which provides security at the courthouse.
Steve Bartel, the county’s risk manager, said his office is reviewing
the claim to determine whether the county has any liability in what he
acknowledged is “a terrible event.”
Mita reported for jury duty the morning of Nov. 26, 2007, left the jury room for the lunch break, but didn’t return at the scheduled time. He apparently became confused and disoriented, and was unable to find his car parked less than a block away. He wandered around the courthouse and its grounds for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Although his family reported him missing about 7 p.m., neither Spokane police who are in the adjoining building nor courthouse security guards who allowed him to stay in the building until it closed knew of the missing person report.
Mita stayed near the courthouse in snow and sub-freezing weather overnight until he died of hypothermia. His body was found the next morning, sitting near the steps of the courthouse’s south entrance.
“There’s some pretty confusing details I’m trying to figure out,” Bartel said. “Could we have done something different?”
To read the rest of the story, click on Continue reading below
Mita was the American-born son of Japanese immigrants who spent three
years with his family in an internment camp during World War II, then
worked for Burlington Northern for 38 years, according to a potential
federal lawsuit that accompanies the family’s claim with the county.
The summons for jury duty that came in the fall of 2007 was the first
he’d ever received.
“He told his family (it) would be a long-waited service to his country
and recognition that his internment 60 years earlier had been a
terrible mistake by the country he loved,” says the draft lawsuit, that
is likely to be filed if the claim is denied. The morning he was to
report, he “rose early, expressed his excitement to his wife and son
and walked out the door of his family home in anticipation of serving
on a jury.”
Mita parked his car in a lot near the Health District Building and
reported for jury duty, participated in a jury selection process that
morning and was in a group given a lunch break with instructions to
return at 1:50 p.m. When he didn’t return, a member of the court staff
called his home and talked to his wife Shizuko, who speaks limited
English. His son Floyd Mita later called back and said his father
didn’t come home for lunch. The court employee said someone would call
back if Mita didn’t return soon, the lawsuit says, but no one called to
say he was still absent. When he didn’t return home that evening, the
family called the county’s Crime Reporting Center to make a missing
person report, which included a description of his car.
The lawsuit contends the coordinator for the jury pool talked with Mita
outside the courthouse about 5 p.m. and she recognized him as a juror
who didn’t return from the lunch break. She told deputies investigating
the case he seemed “confused and bewildered” and unable to find his
car, and she suggested he talk with security guards inside.
Security guards also recalled that Mita passed through the check point
several times during the day, and that he spent some time on a bench
near the heater until the building was cleared at 5:30 p.m. The
building was reopened for a Gonzaga Law School session that evening,
and Mita was allowed inside until the building was closed at 9 p.m. One
guard said when Mita was let in he was very cold, and spoke what the
guard thought was a foreign language; guards assumed he was homeless or
a transient, the lawsuit says.
Before midnight, a janitor inside the courthouse saw Mita standing
outside the building’s south doors. But the janitor is Ukrainian,
speaks limited English and didn’t try to talk to him, the lawsuit says.
That night, the temperature dropped to about 28 degrees and two to
three inches of snow fell. When Mita’s body was found the next morning,
footprints in the snow indicated he’d walked around the area in front
of the courthouse, and bruises and scrapes on his hands suggested he’d
banged on the doors to be let in. But there were no tracks leading to
the parking lot where his car was parked.
Mita was dressed in a pants and light jacket. The county medical
examiner listed his death as hypothermia – accidental, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit contends the county should have followed up with the family
when Mita didn’t return to jury service, that the missing person report
should have been forwarded from the county’s Crime Reporting Center to
the police and the security guards, and guards should have taken
“reasonable care” in dealing with a person who was clearly confused.
Bartel said the county has until Jan. 25 to decide whether to accept or
reject the claim or discuss a potential settlement. If no agreement is
reached by then, the family can file the lawsuit.
Because it would likely be filed as a federal lawsuit, Bartel said
he’s studying other similar cases in West Coast states under the 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: “Right now I can’t tie a legal theory as
to why Spokane County would be responsible for this terrible event.”