A wrongful-death lawsuit over the 2017 killing of Charleena Lyles by two Seattle police officers can move forward again, after a state Court of Appeals opinion published Tuesday reversed a judge’s earlier ruling to dismiss the lawsuit’s negligence claims.
In the opinion, a three-judge appellate panel also reversed King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector’s January 2019 ruling that barred declarations from three experts — two police use-of-force experts and a forensic psychologist — retained by attorneys representing Lyles’ estate, and said there were genuine issues of material fact best left to a jury to decide.
The civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Lyles’ children was sent back to superior court for additional proceedings, according to Tuesday’s appellate opinion.
Two Seattle police officers responded to Lyles’ apartment in Northeast Seattle on June 18, 2017, after Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four, called 911 to report a burglary. According to the officers, she suddenly attacked them with one or two knives and they fatally shot her in the cramped confines of her kitchen.
Lyles’ death sparked protests and outrage, including allegations the shooting fit a pattern of institutionalized racial bias by police. Lyles was Black and both officers are white.
In the 18 months before she died, Lyles — a victim of domestic violence with documented mental-health issues — called Seattle police 23 times, and police said she threatened officers with a pair of shears during a June 5, 2017, disturbance call before dropping them, The Seattle Times has previously reported.
John Schochet, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, which is representing the Seattle Police Department, said Tuesday he was unable to speak about pending litigation.
Attorneys for Seattle police Officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew argued that the negligence claims filed by Lyles’ estate should be dismissed because, under Washington law, it is a “complete defense” in any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death if the person injured or killed was committing a felony at the time, and that the felony was a proximate cause of the injury or death.
But attorneys representing Lyles’ estate opposed the officers’ motion to dismiss and submitted declarations by three experts: One use-of-force expert opined Anderson and McNew’s use of firearms was unreasonable and contrary to the Seattle Police Department’s de-escalation policies. The second use-of-force expert said Lyles’ death could have been prevented had Anderson been carrying his department-issued Taser and used it to subdue Lyles, according to the appeals court opinion.
The estate’s forensic psychologist, who based his opinion on a “forensic autopsy” of Lyles’ mental health records, opined that she was in a psychotic state and so was unable to form the intent to assault the officers, the opinion says.
The estate appealed Spector’s orders to strike the three experts from testifying.
“The admissibility of the experts’ testimony is a key issue in this appeal,” says the opinion authored by Acting Chief Judge Beth Andrus of the state Court of Appeals Division One. Judges David Mann and James Verellen concurred.
In its lawsuit, Lyles’ estate has argued officers did not act reasonably because they failed to use nonlethal force to disarm or subdue her.
Anderson, who was certified to use a Taser and under SPD policy was required to carry it, received a two-day suspension for failing to do so on the day Lyles was killed, the opinion notes.
Seattle police ultimately determined the officers acted reasonably in shooting Lyles and that a Taser application would have been unlikely to subdue her given the confined space and fact she was wearing a bulky jacket, The Seattle Times has previously reported.
“Here, whether the use of lethal force breached a duty of reasonable care is a question for the trier of fact. The Officers may ultimately convince a jury that lethal force was the only viable option,” says the appeals court opinion.
As to the argument that the officers have immunity because Lyles was committing a felony at the time, the three-judge panel said it was inappropriate for the lower court to dismiss the Lyles estate’s claims on summary judgment.
To benefit from complete immunity, the officers must prove Lyles specifically intended to either inflict great bodily harm or cause death — and the three-judge panel disagreed with the officers’ assertion that they aren’t required to prove specific intent to commit a felony, according to Tuesday’s opinion.
“A person’s diminished capacity, due to a mental illness, may impair her ability to form the specific intent to commit a crime,” says the opinion, citing case law.
While Lyles’ estate may bear the burden of proving she suffered a mental illness that diminished her ability to intentionally commit a felony, the officers still have to prove that Lyles was killed during the commission of a felony, the judges found.
“The evidence of Lyles’ psychological condition on the day of her death creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she had the capacity to form the requisite intent to commit felony assault or attempted murder, and the trial court erred in granting summary judgement on this issue,” the opinion says.