EVERETT — Snohomish County reached a $1 million settlement this month to end a lawsuit that sought to link a Darrington man’s death to the disposal of tear gas canisters used by sheriff’s deputies for training.
Michael Vincent, 67, died about three weeks after a gas cloud erupted in the middle of Darrington on April 28, 2011.
Deputies had disposed of tear gas canisters in a dumpster behind the Darrington Library several days earlier after a training exercise. Some of the canisters exploded when a garbage truck emptied the bin and compacted the contents.
Eighteen other people fell ill, but all were treated and released from hospitals the same day, authorities reported at the time.
Vincent suffered from a chronic condition that made it hard for him to breathe. He went into respiratory distress and later died in the hospital, according to attorneys representing his estate.
“One million dollars sends a powerful message, but just as important were the changes Snohomish County made in the way it handles and disposes of toxic riot-control gas,” said David Brown of the Bellingham firm Brett McCandlis &Brown.
Vincent’s widow, Michelle Vincent, filed a lawsuit in Skagit County Superior Court in 2013.
County leaders finalized the settlement last week. The payout is being covered by insurance and county risk-management funds.
The county did not admit fault. However, as a result of the settlement, the sheriff’s office adopted a new policy for disposing of tear-gas canisters, spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
The plaintiff’s attorneys had argued that deputies erred by not taking the ordnance to a facility equipped to handle hazardous waste.
The civil disturbance unit that had used the canisters later disbanded for unrelated reasons, Ireton said. It was multi-jurisdictional team that involved officers from other agencies.
Vincent’s death isn’t the only one that’s drawn attention to the use of tear gas by law enforcement agencies.
The family of a Jackson, Mississippi, woman who died after a 2006 police raid involving tear gas and pepper spray reached a $2.2 million settlement with that city. A judge later ordered the tear-gas maker to pay the woman’s five children $1.1 million, according to local news reports. The woman was not involved in criminal activity.
In the Darrington incident, deputies disposed of the canisters in a dumpster behind the library in the early morning of April 22, 2011. The team had been training at a nearby gravel pit. While driving back from the exercise, one deputy began to have symptoms of exposure to tear gas. The decision was made to stop at the fire station in Darrington to decontaminate and dispose of problem materials, according to court papers.
Deposition testimony suggested that about five household-sized garbage cans full of spent and dud munitions such as pepper spray, tear gas and smoke cannisters went into the dumpster, Conner said.
The gas cloud erupted around 9:45 a.m. almost a week later as a garbage-collection truck emptied the dumpster.
Vincent, who lived along Sauk Avenue across the street from where the dumpster was located, was not at home at the time. He was exposed later in the day after returning home from a visit to the doctor.
Had the case gone to trial, potential witnesses included treating doctors who were prepared to testify about links between the gas cloud and Michael Vincent’s death, said Matt Conner, another attorney for the estate.
Conner described Michael Vincent as a pillar of the Darrington community.
He is survived by his wife, Michelle, four children and 11 grandchildren. He served with the Darrington Volunteer Fire Department, where he was fire chief for seven years and helped start a cadet program.
The awareness of the potential dangers of tear gas were all the more important to the family because the Vincents’ two sons are Border Patrol agents.
“It was an honor to fight for such a wonderful family and help them get closure for their terrible loss,” Conner said. “I hope law enforcement agencies around the country take notice of how dangerous tear gas can be.”