County to pay $495,000 to former death investigator

EVERETT — A former death investigator at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office has reached a half-million-dollar settlement with the county over workplace retaliation.

Shannon Impett, 44, of Granite Falls, worked as a county death investigator from 2004 until she was let go in 2011.

The Medical Examiner’s Office, led by Dr. Norman Thiersch, came under intense scrutiny in 2010 after questions about high employee turnover and the quality of autopsies being performed. Last year, the office again found itself under the microscope after Monroe Police detectives questioned why a pathologist declined requests to perform an autopsy on a 7-year-old boy who died of a drug overdose.

The settlement was reached last month and was unanimously approved by the County Council on Wednesday.

At the time of her termination, Impett had been seeking alternative work assignments because of an on-the-job back injury suffered while moving a cadaver.

In her lawsuit, Impett accused the county and Thiersch of subjecting her to retaliation, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, gender discrimination, and failing to accommodate her disability. She sought compensation for back pay, emotional distress and other economic damages.

In her suit, Impett reports confronting Thiersch at work with a complaint about “messy, disrespectful, unethical and unprofessional conditions in the morgue.” Impett claimed Thiersch became angry and retaliated during an autopsy the next day.

“He then unethically and unprofessionally yanked and ripped the heart and lungs from a cadaver,” the lawsuit alleges. “Immediately Dr. Thiersch forcefully flung the organs back into the pool of blood within the chest cavity so as to intentionally splash and splatter blood on Plaintiff’s face and torso, thereby resulting in lasting psychological torment and potentially exposing her to bloodborne pathogens.”

Because the case never went to trial, the allegations were not proven in court.

Earlier this year, King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Linde ruled there was evidence to support Impett’s retaliation claim. Linde dismissed the other claims.

The settlement reached last month awards Impett $495,000 for “pain and suffering due to physical injury and attorneys’ fees and costs.”

The county admitted no wrongdoing. Impett cannot pursue the same allegations in future lawsuits. The settlement also includes a confidentiality clause barring Impett or her attorney, Judith Lonnquist of Seattle, from discussing the case.

Thiersch also is bound by a confidentiality clause.

“We settle cases based upon the risks and based upon the recommendation of legal counsel,” said Peter Camp, an executive director under County Executive John Lovick whose duties include overseeing the medical examiner.

Personnel problems, including high turnover, have percolated at the county morgue for years. Aaron Reardon was responsible for overseeing the office for nearly a decade, until he resigned as county executive in May.

A couple of the morgue’s personnel problems led to criminal investigations, though no charges were filed.

In 2009, an on-duty death investigator was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence after he appeared to be drunk at the scene of a quadruple traffic fatality. Another investigator resigned in 2011 amid allegations that he stole drugs seized during death investigations.

In 2010, the County Council demanded that Reardon’s office hire an independent consultant to review the morgue’s management practices. That followed Reardon’s office producing internal reviews that suggested little room for improvement.

The consultant delivered a series of personnel recommendations, including management coaching, better communication with morgue staff and standardized operating procedures. Area funeral homes, on the other hand, gave mostly positive feedback about Thiersch’s staff and the quality of the autopsies performed.

There have been no management shakeups since then, though the Medical Examiner’s Office did hire a new business manager in 2012 after the retirement of the office’s deputy director.

The Medical Examiner’s Office employs 14 people with a budget of more than $2.1 million.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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