When 84-year-old Kay Mita got a jury summons, he regarded it as a sign the government was acknowledging a six-decade-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 overnight on the courthouse steps two years ago have filed a $5 million claim with Spokane County, a possible prelude to a federal lawsuit against the county and Guardsmark LLC, which provides courthouse security.
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 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 subfreezing 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?”
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 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, which 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. He 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 that 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. 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 checkpoint 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 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 pants and a 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 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,” he said.