Man paralyzed in Kent Denny's shooting takes $13M deal, not the $46M jury award
A man who was paralyzed in a 2007 shooting at a Denny's in Kent will receive $13 million from the restaurant chain despite being awarded more than $46 million by a King County jury on Monday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A man who was left paralyzed after a shooting at a Denny's in Kent four years ago will receive $13 million from the restaurant chain even though a King County jury agreed he was entitled to more than $46 million.
Before the jury reached its decision on Monday, lawyers for Denny's and the three shooting victims reached an agreement that plaintiff Steve Tolenoa would receive a minimum of $5 million and a maximum of $13 million from the restaurant chain's insurers depending on the jurors' decision, according to his attorney, Ron Perey. The agreement guaranteed Tolenoa, who sustained the most serious injuries, would receive some money regardless of the jury's decision, Perey said.
He said he felt the case went well. "We were confident about the case, but any case can be lost," Perey said. "Without any money from this, [Tolenoa] would be doomed to live in an institution the rest of his life."
Tolenoa, 31, and the two other plaintiffs filed suit against Denny's after five customers were wounded by a man who opened fire inside the restaurant in the early hours of Jan. 21, 2007. Tolenoa, a Bible-college graduate who worked for the U.S. Postal Service, was shot in the back and rendered quadriplegic.
Jurors, in finding in favor of the plaintiffs, awarded Tolenoa and two other wounded customers $46.4 million. The jury awarded Tolenoa the vast majority of that: $46,348,262.
Under the agreement between the attorneys for the plaintiffs and Denny's, if the jury award was less than $5 million the plaintiffs would still get that amount, said Thomas Merrick, the Seattle lawyer representing the Spartanburg, S.C., restaurant chain. If the jury award was more than $13 million, both sides agreed, the insurance company would have to pay only $13 million.
In exchange, the insurance company for Denny's promised not to appeal. The money will be delivered to the plaintiffs within two weeks, said Perey.
Merrick said that the restaurant chain and its insurance company reached the agreement with the plaintiffs because of the "big risk" of cases involving catastrophic injuries.
"There's a lot of sympathy and sometimes juries have an independent streak and review the case differently than the lawyers and the parties," Merrick said.
Under the agreement, Lisa Beltran-Walker, who was shot in the knee, will receive $35,000. Her husband, Carl Walker, will receive $15,000.
Perey said that Tolenoa will use the money to buy a house where he can have 24-hour, long-term care. Since he was shot, Tolenoa has moved into an assisted-living center, according to the lawsuit.
"They jury's message was loud and clear to Denny's: They have to do something to protect customers and employees. They can't just look the other way and hope that nobody gets hurt," Perey said.
Merrick said, "The jury found there was no problem with the policies and procedures that Denny's has to make the restaurant safe." Instead, he said, the jurors believed the managers on duty that day at the restaurant were negligent.
The 2009 lawsuit was filed against the restaurant chain, Spokane-based J&D Restaurant Inc. and Linda Hoffert, who at the time of the shooting was the district manager for the Kent Denny's. Since the shootings, the Denny's at 1246 N. Central Ave. has been franchised and is now owned by J&D Restaurant, Merrick said.
In its verdict, the jury found that Hoffert had not acted negligently. J&D was dismissed from the case because the company had no connection to the business when the shootings occurred.
According to court filings, Frank Lee Evans got into a fight inside the restaurant just before the shooting. After being beaten up, Evans walked outside and returned with a gun. Evans fired into the restaurant, wounding five people, before fleeing.
There was no security inside the restaurant that night, court filings said.
Part of the lawsuit accused the restaurant chain of negligence for failing to have a security officer on duty. According to the suit, police were called to the restaurant 30 times between 2005 and 2008 for crimes that included assaults, drugs, harassment, car prowls and rape.
Evans, 27, was sentenced to more than 63 years in prison for the shootings.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com
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