By BRIAN KELLY |Bainbridge Island Review
TACOMA — The Ostling family said they were satisfied with a jury’s verdict Friday that awarded the family $1 million in damages in their civil rights lawsuit against the city of Bainbridge Island.
William and Joyce Ostling filed a lawsuit against Bainbridge Island, Police Officer Jeff Benkert and Police Chief Jon Fehlman last year, claiming that their constitutional rights had been violated after Benkert and another officer came to their home after police received a 911 call from their son, Douglas Ostling.
Ostling, who had a long history of mental illness, was shot and killed by Benkert after he met police at his apartment door above the family’s garage while holding a double-bladed ax.
After two days of deliberations, the jury rendered a split decision.
The jury decided that Benkert was justified in the shooting, but that the Bainbridge Police Department had not adequately trained its officers and the family’s civil rights had been violated because the killing had severed the relationship between Ostling and his parents.
“We wanted to make change to what was going on. I’m pleased with that,” William Ostling said as he left the federal courtroom in Tacoma where the lawsuit was heard by an eight-person jury.
“We can’t afford to let this happen again,” he added. “When you see it happening in front of you, it’s hard to sleep with it.”
Nathan Roberts, the lead attorney for the Ostlings, said the jury decided in the family’s favor on the most important part of the lawsuit.
“The jury found for us, for the family, on the most important claim,” Roberts said.
“The message is a strong one to this police department — and to other police departments — that you’ve got to train your officers on how to deal with the mentally ill,” he said. “They are saying the department’s failure caused Doug’s death, and that’s the most important finding we could have gotten.”
Roberts said he was slightly disappointed, but not terribly surprised, that the jury found the shooting itself was justified.
“Juries typically sympathize with individuals, and they don’t want to go against a police officer,” he said.
“What’s important is that they indicted the entire department,” Roberts added.
The damages were divided; $200,000 to the estate of Douglas Ostling, and $400,000 each for both Joyce and William Ostling.
“I think a million dollars sends a pretty strong message,” Roberts said.
Stewart Estes, the lead attorney defending the city against the lawsuit, said it was entirely too early to determine if the decision should be appealed.
“This is a tragedy, everyone recognizes that. But a jury has looked at this, and on three questions, decided that Jeff Benkert did not do anything wrong the night of Oct. 26,” Estes said.
“The jury determined that Chief Fehlman and the city violated Douglas’ rights by not training their officers. Those officers obviously don’t include Jeff Benkert,” Estes said.
The problem is, he added, the decision did not cite others.
“The instructions said: Bainbridge Island officers. And so there are several on the scene, so the training has to do with one of those people. But we don’t know,” Estes said.
Estes said it was a shame that Fehlman was not able to be in court to defend himself.
Fehlman was hospitalized with pancreatitis the night before the trial began, and only this week left the hospital. He is reportedly due to return to the hospital soon for surgery.
Estes said the absence of Fehlman’s testimony was “a big factor” in the jury’s verdict.
On the police training issue, Estes said: “The message is muddled.”
“We don’t know who the jury found did something wrong, or what they did,” he said.
It was too soon to consider an appeal, Estes said.
“It’s something we will have to consider,” he said.
“Chief Fehlman was deprived of that right to defend himself. It’s a critical piece of information,” Estes added.
The jury began its deliberations on Wednesday, and they arrived late Friday morning, just before 10:30 a.m., to continue their discussion of the case.
The Ostling family was already in Union Station, home to U.S. District Court, and waited in the lobby of the renovated train station for word of the jury’s return.
That came shortly before 12:30 p.m.
The eight jurors — a retired federal employee who lives in Tacoma, a Graham man who works for a stair-cycle company, a retiree from Orting, a pastor from Kelso, a young nursing student who is currently working as a housekeeper, a former American Airlines pilot from Port Townsend who now works for his wife’s textbook company, a retired bookkeeper from Ocean Shores, and a woman married to a retired Marine Corps officer known to friends as “Mrs. Colonel” — entered the courtroom with grim expressions.
The jury had selected the pastor from Kelso as its foreman, and he handed a clerk the pages containing the jury’s verdict.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton quickly scanned the decision, and then read it aloud.
After the jury was dismissed, William Ostling rose with a smile and turned to his family members and supporters. They shared hugs and tears before leaving the courtroom.