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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A jury says Spokane County owes a former sheriff’s deputy nearly $20 million. How will the county come up with the money?

The Spokane County Courthouse and jail are seen in 2019.   (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Steve Bartel has seen a lot of jury verdicts in his two decades as Spokane County’s risk management director.

But in the past 20 years, he’s never seen a verdict like the one delivered against the county last month.

“An almost $20 million verdict? I don’t even have the words for it,” Bartel said.

In December, a Superior Court jury awarded more than $19 million in lost wages and damages to former Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeff Thurman and his wife. Thurman sued Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in 2019 for wrongful termination and defamation. Spokane County plans to appeal the decision.

The size of the verdict was shocking, Bartel said, as he anticipated the county might have to pay $6 million under the worst-case scenario.

But the Thurman verdict wasn’t the only settlement or jury decision in 2022 that had big financial repercussions for local governments.

In March, the county reached a $1 million settlement with the family of Ethan Murray, who was shot and killed three years earlier by a sheriff’s deputy. The city of Spokane in September reached a $4 million settlement with the family of David Novak, who was shot and killed by police in 2019. Last week, the county agreed to a $7.5 million settlement with the family of Benjamin Grosser, whose family argued a sheriff’s deputy’s inaction led to his death in a murder-suicide.

A U.S. District Court jury in July awarded $27 million in damages to the family of Cindy Lou Hill, who died of a ruptured intestine in the Spokane County Jail. Spokane County will pay $275,000 of that amount while NaphCare, the jail’s medical provider, will owe the rest. NaphCare is trying to persuade U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke to overturn the verdict.

Seven-figure settlements and verdicts aren’t normal.

“I’ve never seen these kinds of awards,” Bartel said.

Local governments rarely pay the full cost when they lose trials or reach massive settlements. Insurance typically covers most of their expenses.

Spokane County’s main safety net is the Washington Counties Risk Pool, which provides insurance to 25 jurisdictions throughout the state. Counties make annual payments to the pool in return for coverage.

The risk pool covers up to $20 million for each trial loss and settlement, although Spokane County has to pay a $500,000 deductible per incident. That means if the true cost of the Thurman verdict were $20 million, the risk pool would cover $19.5 million.

The true cost likely will be far higher, though, if the county’s appeal fails.

Bartel explained that the county will probably have to pay Thurman’s attorney fees. That, combined with the county’s own legal expenses, probably will bring the total dollar amount into the $26 million range. Spokane County will have to make up the $6 million difference.

It isn’t clear how the county will come up with the money. Legally, the county is allowed to assess a tax in order to raise the funds, although Bartel said that’s never happened.

County commissioners Mary Kuney, Al French, Josh Kerns and Amber Waldref could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Chris Jordan, who took office Jan. 1, said he wasn’t sure where the $6 million could come from. Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley said the commissioners probably won’t discuss the $6 million until after the appeals process is complete.

The case arose after Knezovich fired Thurman in 2019. In a news conference, the sheriff said he made the decision after an internal affairs investigation found Thurman used the N-word while on the phone with other deputies, talked about killing Black people and sexually harassed a female deputy. Thurman sued Knezovich later that year.

In his lawsuit, the 18-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office challenged Knezovich’s characterizations of the investigation, said the story of his use of a racial epithet was fabricated by his accuser and argued he was the victim of racial discrimination himself in his dismissal.

Even when insurance covers the bulk of a big settlement or verdict, legal losses still cost local governments. They raise premiums, the annual payments that organizations make to insurance providers.

The Washington Counties Risk Pool primarily calculates premiums based on a government’s prior legal history.

Spokane County’s annual payments have risen sharply in the past few years.

Two years ago, Spokane County paid $2.2 million a year to participate in the risk pool. This year, the county is paying $3.6 million.

Bartel stressed that Spokane County’s legal record isn’t necessarily the main driver for those higher premiums. Insurance rates for local governments throughout the state are soaring.

At the same time, the number of companies willing to sell insurance appears to be falling.

“Our concern, big picture, is our ability to buy insurance in the future,” Bartel said. “I truly believe that there are several insurance companies out there that will not want to participate in our program – the risk pool program – because they just can’t afford to do business in Washington.”