Pierce County settles Sheriff’s Department shooting lawsuit for $3.5 million

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Pierce County has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a man fatally shot in 2017 by a sheriff’s deputy in Port Orchard, attorneys said.

Brent Heath died about a year after Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Carl Shanks shot him in the head Sept. 21, 2017.

“The shooting occurred at the end of a police chase when Mr. Heath was surrounded and his car was disabled with three flat tires, and blocked from the road by a guardrail,” attorneys for the estate said in a press release. “Mr. Heath survived for over a year with devastating injuries and tremendous suffering ... .”

Anthony Otto, one of the attorneys who represented Heath’s estate, said Friday that the settlement was reached last month.

Pierce County said in a statement Friday: “The parties have reached a settlement in this matter. We hope this resolution allows the family to move forward.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, gave this account of what happened: Heath, 35, was driving a car with expired tabs and fled when a sheriff’s deputy tried to stop him on the Key Peninsula.

A 12-mile chase ensued with officers from several agencies.

Heath ran over spike strips and ultimately came to a stop. There was a woman in the passenger seat.

“... the police vehicles and a guardrail to Heath’s right and a ravine filled with trees to his front and left prevented re-entry onto the road,” the lawsuit said. “Additional patrol vehicles were ahead on the roadway and many were parked behind, preventing all chance of escape.”

Heath kept trying to flee by rocking the vehicle back and forth, even though the blown tires had disabled it.

Shanks fired multiple shots into the vehicle.

“Deputy defendant Carl Shanks knew there were other officers surrounding the Heath vehicle, but had no knowledge of any officer being in the path of the vehicle, which was moving slowly,” the lawsuit alleged. “In fact, no officers were in danger from the movement of the Heath vehicle, or otherwise, at the time shots were fired by deputy defendant Carl Shanks.”

One of Pierce County’s filings in the case argued in part: “The undisputed facts indicate that Plaintiff Heath violated various traffic laws: he was speeding, ran through traffic lights, was driving recklessly through populated areas, as well as committing the felony of eluding a police officer in a vehicle registered to the owner and presumed driver with an outstanding felony firearms warrant, and was continuing to attempt to elude police putting officers at risk when he was shot. Heath’s actions and the severity of the crimes at issue here weigh in favor of holding that shooting Plaintiff was reasonable.”

Court records said the vehicle was registered to someone else, not Heath.

The lawsuit also made allegations about Pierce County’s training at the time for use of deadly force during pursuits.

“Defendant Pierce County’s officials within the Sheriff’s Office, examining why the department was having a number of shootings of vehicle drivers by deputies, reviewed the use of force curriculum, and recognized that their policy as stated in the training was in error, and could lead to unnecessary death and injury, but failed to timely change the policy to prevent the fatal shooting of Brent Lee Heath,” the complaint said.

Attorneys for the estate said in their release that Sheriff’s Department leadership “had ordered the training be corrected two days before the killing of Mr. Heath, but the correction was not communicated to the officers in the field until seven days after he was shot.”

Heath required a feeding tube and other help with self-care following the shooting. He was cared for by his family in Hoquiam.

“He endured many surgeries to repair the damage and make his life more livable,” the lawsuit said. “He suffered great pain.”

He died from complications from the injury Oct. 1, 2018.

“He was a grandson, a son, a brother, a father and a grandfather,” the news release said. “He is missed.”

This story was originally written and published by The News Tribune.

Comments on this article