In the first significant step toward a possible settlement, Spokane city leaders and attorneys representing the mother and estate of Otto Zehm announced late Thursday that they will enter mediation to settle the civil suit filed over his death.
“It’s time to move this long-standing case toward resolution, and mediation provides a tremendous opportunity to resolve this case outside of court,” Mayor David Condon said in a news release. “Resolving the Zehm suit is a high priority for me and our community.”
Breean Beggs, who represents Zehm’s mother and estate, said he has agreed to the format, in which a mediator helps negotiate a settlement.
“The Zehm family believes that mediation is the most constructive way to move forward towards resolving this dispute,” Beggs said in the release.
However, the agreement also calls for both sides to keep those future negotiations secret.
“We thought the mediation would be more productive if the specific proposals were kept confidential until it was clear that there was an agreement,” Beggs said.
The civil case, filed in 2009, is separate from the criminal indictment that resulted last November in the conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force and lying to investigators to cover up his actions.
U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko in 2010 put the civil case on hold after Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin alleged in court records that Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi was taking information gleaned from the civil case to help defend Thompson against criminal charges.
Jeffry Finer, who is assisting Beggs, said any settlement will be made public.
Asked if the mediation was a sign that talks had broken down, Finer said the move represents the opposite.
“Mediation is definitely a step forward. We … are both very pleased that we’ve come to this step,” Finer said.
Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, died on March 20, 2006, two days after he was confronted by Thompson inside the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St.
A video showed that Thompson immediately engaged Zehm, 36, who was retreating and had not committed a crime. Police confronted Zehm after two young women reported he was behaving erratically. The women erroneously reported that he may have taken money from an ATM.
Thompson beat Zehm with a baton and shocked him with a Taser.
Thompson has yet to be sentenced. U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle postponed the sentencing after an expert witness claimed that federal prosecutors incorrectly summarized his expected testimony.
The mediation will help decide how much the city will ultimately pay to settle the civil suit.
Under the city’s insurance plan, the city is on the hook for the first $1 million in liability litigation. Included in that first million is the $119,000 already paid to attorney Carl Oreskovich’s firm to represent Thompson in the civil case. The city’s insurance underwriter, American International Group, would then pay the next $10 million and the city would be on the hook for anything more.
The civil case went nowhere until then-Mayor Mary Verner said she wanted to move toward settlement after federal court filings last year indicated that former Assistant Chief Jim Nicks had told federal prosecutors that he believed Thompson violated department policy and that detectives improperly investigated the confrontation from which Zehm later died.
Until then, the city’s only public position on the case came in the 56-page answer to the civil suit that was issued in 2009 just one day prior to Thompson’s indictment in federal court. In that document, co-authored by Oreskovich and Treppiedi, the city essentially blamed Zehm for his own death because he resisted Thompson.
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