The city of Spokane and its insurers will pay $4 million as part of a legal settlement with the family of a man shot and killed by police in 2019.
The settlement was announced the day the family’s wrongful death lawsuit was set to go to trial in Spokane County Superior Court.
David Novak, 35, was shot and killed the night of Jan. 7, 2019, after neighbors reported he was drunk, shouting racial slurs at them and shooting a gun toward their home.
But Novak didn’t have a gun. The noises that sounded like gunshots turned out to be Novak slamming a baseball bat against his own truck.
Prosecutors cleared Spokane police officer Brandon Rankin of any wrongdoing in August 2019. The family filed suit against the city days later.
Rankin remains employed with the city and has since been promoted to detective.
David Novak’s mother, Debbie Novak, and his sister, Crystal Jenkins, were set to have their lawsuit go to trial after David’s father, Michael Novak, settled with the city for $250,000 last week.
“We can’t bring David back,” Debbie Novak said outside the courtroom after the settlement was announced. “So our goal and our hope is that this saves lives in other ways and that when somebody is in uniform … that they will think twice before they use excessive force or take a life.”
In a statement provided Thursday evening, the city wrote: “The City was prepared to present a case that clearly outlined the events that evening. The decision to settle was made independently by the City’s excess carrier. Resolving the case moves everyone forward from what has been a difficult time for all involved.”
The $4 million settlement is among the largest payouts in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city involving its police force. It eclipses the $1.67 million the city paid to settle the wrongful death suit filed by the family of Otto Zehm in 2012. Zehm died of asphyxiation at the hands of Spokane police following an unprovoked and violent encounter with Officer Karl Thompson.
A federal jury later convicted Thompson for using excessive force and lying to federal agents. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison. The case prompted a US Department of Justice review of the Spokane Police Department’s practices and procedures.
Jury selection in the case began Monday and opening arguments in the case were set for Thursday morning. But early in the morning, Debbie Novak got a call that the city was ready to settle.
“It has been a very emotional day,” Debbie Novak said.
Rondi Thorp, Novak’s attorney, said they had been negotiating with the city all week. In their initial suit, the Novak family did not seek a specific dollar amount, instead leaving it open for a jury to decide should they prevail at trial.
The city did not admit to wrongdoing in the settlement nor commit to any type of reform, Thorp said, but the Novak family hopes the significant dollar amount will lead the department to make changes.
A settlement that large suggests “that they’re going to take a look at things and make some changes,” Thorp said of the police department.
That sentiment is shared by Novak’s family.
“I feel like they’re admitting that they are wrong by giving this settlement,” Jenkins said. “By giving this settlement, they know there’s a good chance that they don’t win this. So for me, it’s a win for my brother and he’d be proud.”
David Novak grew up at the family home in Nine Mile Falls. As a teen, if he wasn’t helping his mom fix up their house, he was on the lake swimming or water skiing, his mother said.
“He was a lake boy,” she said.
He was also an athlete, competing in gymnastics, baseball and football. He attended school in Nine Mile Falls until his senior year, which he finished at Havermale Alternative School. He mostly worked construction jobs and spent his vacation time in Maui, where he developed a solid group of friends, his mother said.
Before his death, he was just one flight hour away from obtaining his helicopter pilot’s license, his mother said.
“He was always doing something,” Debbie Novak said.
After some heart issues made him leave construction, David Novak began setting up his own trucking business. His doctor sent an email the morning after his death, clearing David Novak to drive commercially again, his mother said.
His English bulldog, Gracie, was always by his side, Debbie Novak said, even up to the moment he died.
David Novak always made time for family, showering his nieces and nephews with big bear hugs and spending a lot of time with his grandma, his mother said. Debbie Novak said she wished her mom was here to see them get justice for David.
Despite the settlement, the Novak family plans to continue their police accountability work. Debbie Novak is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and has protested monthly in front of the courthouse for years.
“People need to remember that when people do that work, they’re not only doing that work for the civilian, they’re doing that work for police officers, too,” Debbie Novak said of police reform advocacy. “It’s a win-win situation when you have reform that saves lives on both sides.”
Thorp also is representing the family of Robert Bradley, who was shot and killed by police earlier this month after a dispute with his neighbors in an incident Thorp called similar to Novak’s death.
The Bradley family plans to file a claim for damages against the city in the near future, she said.
The city and its insurance carrier will pay at least $4.8 million related to Novak’s death after settling with David’s father Michael Novak and paying more than $600,000 in legal fees.
The settlement must be approved by the Spokane City Council. Council President Breann Beggs said he doesn’t expect a problem with it being approved.
The city must pay $1.5 million before their insurance company will step in on a case like this, he explained. Then per their contract, it’s the insurance carrier, not the city, that decides when to settle on claims above $1.5 million but below $20 million, Beggs explained.
Beggs expects the council to vote on the settlement early next month.
Reporter Kip Hill contributed to this story.
Jesse Tinsley – The Spokesman Review