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Originally published November 20, 2012 at 7:58 PM | Page modified November 21, 2012 at 8:02 AM

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King County told to pay $1.17 million more in brain-damage case

The family of Christopher Harris, who was left permanently brain-damaged after he was slammed into a concrete wall by a King County sheriff's deputy in 2009, will receive an additional $1.17 million in a settlement with the county for withholding documents from Harris' attorneys.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The family of a man who was left permanently brain-damaged after he was slammed into a concrete wall by a sheriff's deputy in 2009 will receive an additional $1.17 million in a settlement with King County that was announced Tuesday.

The county had earlier settled a lawsuit filed by relatives of the injured man, Christopher Harris, for a record $10 million, but agreed to pay the additional sum after Harris' attorneys successfully argued in a Pierce County Superior Court that the Sheriff's Office intentionally withheld documents on the deputy's behavior.

In finding in favor of the Harris family in September, Judge Stephanie Arend issued a $300,000 sanction against the county.

All told, the Harris family will receive about $11.5 million from the county after he was wrongly identified as a suspect and slammed into a wall in downtown Seattle 3 ½ years ago.

Harris' attorneys argued that King County withheld documents that could have been used in a federal civil-rights lawsuit to show that the Sheriff's Office knew Deputy Matthew Paul had a pattern of engaging in egregious behavior.

Harris, 32, of Olympia, was left brain-damaged, unable to speak and paralyzed after he was tackled and pushed into a wall by Paul in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.

The incident was captured on surveillance video.

On May 10, 2009, Harris was walking through Belltown when he was wrongly identified by a witness as a suspect in a fight inside a nearby convenience store. The witness pointed Harris out to Paul and another deputy, who were working as King County Metro Transit officers.

Harris led the deputies on a roughly 2 ½-block foot chase as the deputies yelled for him to stop. The two sides disputed exactly when the deputies identified themselves as officers.

Harris' attorneys said Paul and the other deputy were wearing black tactical uniforms, not traditional deputy uniforms, and that Harris likely didn't realize the deputies were law-enforcement officers.

As Harris slowed to a stop, Paul delivered a hit to Harris' chest, slamming him into the concrete wall outside the Cinerama theater at Fourth Avenue and Lenora Street. On the surveillance video Harris is seen raising his hands before he is hit by Paul.

An internal investigation by the Sheriff's Office determined that Paul delivered a "hard shove" to Harris that fell within legal bounds. The King County Prosecutor's Office, calling it "a very tragic incident," declined to file criminal charges against the deputy.

The county settled the family's lawsuit for $10 million just days after the civil trial began in January 2011.

Attorneys for Harris filed additional claims after subsequently learning the county had failed to turn over documents relating to Paul's conduct that showed the deputy had previously been accused of using excessive force.

Arend, the Pierce County judge, said King County's failure to produce the documents was intentional and reprehensible.

"This reckless indifference in its failure to produce these three documents — documents that were indisputably relevant — is the functional equivalent of intentional misconduct," Arend said.

"We are pleased that King County heeded Judge Arend's ruling and have taken steps to settle these claims," said Sim Osborn, one of Harris' attorneys. "This case has fundamentally changed for the better the way King County and the Sheriff's Department do business."

The Sheriff's Office has said that the documents were not deliberately withheld and that a non-centralized computer system played a role in the failure to disclose the documents.

In a statement released Tuesday, Sheriff Steve Strachan said, "Although we continue to strongly disagree with the court that any documents were intentionally withheld by anyone in our office, this resolution does allow for the Harris family to move forward, and we wish them the best."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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