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Sheriff’s Office prevails in $10 million wrongful death suit

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A wrongful death suit against a former Lewis County Sheriff’s deputy has been dismissed in US District Court based on a judge’s determination the defendant was protected by qualified immunity.

Former deputy Matt McKnight, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, were being sued for an estimated $10 million by the survivors of Steven Petersen, a Napavine man shot and killed by McKnight on June 20, 2011.

Though Petersen was initially reported to have been carrying a large knife, he was later found to be unarmed and the plaintiff argued McKnight, now with the Chehalis Police Department, had acted rashly and negligently while the Sheriff’s Office had offered inadequate training and policy enforcement.

But Judge Ronald Leighton ruled Feb. 13 that state statutes protect McKnight though qualified immunity, meaning McKnight may not be prosecuted if a reasonable person in the same situation with the same information would have made the same decision with no intent to break the law.

"There is no evidence that McKnight shot Steven [Petersen] for any purpose other than self-defense," stated Leighton in his order granting summary judgment, adding McKnight’s decision to shoot was made "without the luxury of deliberation."

Leighton went on the clarify qualified immunity protects McKnight from prosecution even if a later examination of the facts could prove a criminal violation did occur, as long as the actions taken at the time, based on the information at hand, would still have been the actions of a reasonable, lawfully-intended individual.

"The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight," said Leighton. "Plaintiff is unable to dispute that, based on the information available to McKnight at the time, McKnight reasonably believed that Steven [Petersen] had a large knife. The fact that Steven [Petersen] did not actually have a weapon cannot factor into the reasonableness analysis."

"For the reasons stated above, McKnight is entitled to qualified immunity…and all of Plaintiff’s other claims fail as a matter of law," he went on to state.

Leighton also ruled the Sheriff’s Office could not be held liable because the plaintiff had been unable to prove the Sheriff’s Office had acted negligently or outside their training requirements, stating the plaintiff’s claims of such offences were "pure speculation."

Leighton additionally dismissed a counterclaim from the defendants in which they were seeking damages from the plaintiff for malicious prosecution. Leighton said such a claim would require proof the plaintiff’s suit had been groundless and motivated by malice, stating the plaintiff’s desire for restitution "certainly is not groundless 

Sheriff Steve Mansfield said, “I am pleased with the findings.  Although I am truly saddened Mr. Petersen lost his life, the facts are what they are. Fortunately, a Federal Judge determined that all of the plaintiff’s claims against Lewis County and Matt McKnight should be dismissed as a matter of law.”

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