Vancouver to pay $383,000 in 2009 death

Tort claim alleged city was liable in stabbing of woman

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The Vancouver City Council agreed Monday to pay the four sons of Shirry Rice-Dohman $383,000 to settle their tort claim alleging the city was liable in her death.

However, one councilor voted against paying a settlement, saying she’s tired of seeing people sue the city for its perceived “deep pockets.”

“It is a very unfortunate situation,” said Councilor Jeanne Harris of Rice-Dohman’s February 2009 murder by her brother, Michael Schuurmans, who was later found to be insane at the time of the killing. “However, I am responsible for the citizens’ money, and over the years I’ve seen : if people disagree with the city, they feel like the can sue the city because it has deep pockets.”

In a tort claim filed in August, Rice-Dohman’s sons said that Vancouver police officer Andrew Young broke state law when he failed to arrest Schuurmans during a domestic violence call three days before Schuurmans killed his sister at the house where they both lived. Young was called to the home on Feb. 25, 2009, following an altercation between Schuurmans and Rice-Dohman’s son, Aaron Dohman. According to the claim, Schuurmans, a black belt, swung Aaron, then 24, in the air and also punched him in the stomach.

Washington law says an officer must arrest the primary physical aggressor if there is probable cause that a domestic violence crime occurred within four hours of the call for help. Officer Young did not arrest Schuurmans. Three days later Schuurmans, stabbed Rice-Dohman to death, believing he was God and she was Satan.

In a statement, the city denied liability, but cited the potential high attorney cost of a jury trial. It also said that similar cases have resulted in awards of $250,000 to more than $5 million, not including litigation costs or attorney fees.

Harris said she felt that it was unfair to hand over money in the fear that a jury will rule based on emotion, not fact. However, the other councilors said that while they may agree in theory with Harris, the risk in taking such a case to court isn’t worth taking a stand.

“I don’t feel this is the time to do that,” said Councilor Bart Hansen, adding he did not feel the facts given to the council surrounding the case indicated a winning trial to him. “From what I’ve been presented, it’s clear we need to support (a settlement).”

City Attorney Ted Gathe said the city has gone to the mat for officers in other situations.

“When we find facts that justify what an officer did, we give a full defense,” Gathe said. “Unfortunately, this was not one of those cases.”

In 2010, a judge ruled that Schuurmans was not guilty by reason of insanity, and Schuurmans was ordered to be confined indefinitely at Western State Hospital near Tacoma.