Steven Tolenoa has a lot to think about these days.
The Kent man, who survived a 2007 shooting at Denny’s restaurant in Kent, learned this week that he’ll be seeing the lion’s share of a $13 million settlement from Denny’s insurance carrier.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Tolenoa, of the two-year legal effort by his attorney Ron Perey, that ended this week with a jury verdict in his favor, as well as the settlement.
Tolenoa, 31, has spent nearly all four years since the shooting in bed or in a wheelchair at the Auburn facility, where the average age is 68. He is paralyzed from the chest down, the result of two bullets that slammed through his body in the Jan. 21 shooting at the eatery, where he was an early-morning customer about to eat a Grand Slam breakfast. Tolenoa was at the restaurant during what is called “bar rush,” a time that the bars close, and customers go somewhere else for food – and, sometimes, to look for trouble.
A jury in the case returned this week with a $46.4 million verdict in Tolenoa’s favor, following more than 3 weeks of testimony that involved everyone from local witnesses and police officers to Tolenoa and some of Denny’s top brass – including its chief executive officer.
However, in order to avoid tying up the immediate assistance that Tolenoa needs, Perey agreed to a $13 million settlement with Denny’s insurance carrier. That means Tolenoa will be seeing the money in 2 weeks, versus the years that could lapse as the case worked its way through the appeals system.
Tolenoa, sitting in his room Tuesday evening, about to celebrate with Kentucky Fried Chicken, said he was satisfied with the lesser amount of the settlement.
His most pressing wish, as a result of the forthcoming funds?
“Getting out of this place,” he said.
Doug Weinmaster, an attorney in Perey’s Seattle-based law firm, said Tolenoa will be looking for his own home, although he will need a full-time caregiver. But just to have a place of his own, where he won’t have to share a room, is a primary goal.
So too will be additional therapy, to help Tolenoa recapture some of his arm movement and possibly increase his fine-motor skills.
“We’re going to give him every opportunity,” Weinmaster said, seated at Tolenoa’s bedside. “I personally have big expectations for this guy – I can’t wait to go to a Mariners game with him.”
They’re also hoping to obtain what’s called a “handy van,” a specially equipped van that will be able to transport Tolenoa in his wheelchair. Right now, he doesn’t have that option. But he could be the owner of one in the future, and if he improves enough with therapy, the van could be modified for him to drive.
But for the time being, that is all in the future.
Right now Tolenoa has just the present.
A Bible-school graduate from an island in Micronesia, the Kent man said his faith has helped him stay strong in the face of this adversity.
“I actually take it as a test of faith,” he said.
Also helping him has been the support of his family. Tolenoa’s brother, Wilven, was actually with him at the Denny’s when the shootout occurred. And shortly after the shooting, Tolenoa’s parents – both retired grade-school teachers – moved to the area to be with him. He also has other siblings – some still living in Micronesia – who have shown him support.
But while he keeps his mind on the positive things that are about to happen to him, Tolenoa does have words for Denny’s – which has called the shooting a “tragedy,” but has maintained it was an event that was out of the restaurant’s control.
“They could have prevented this from happening,” Tolenoa said. “They knew they had a problem (with unruly customers) after the bar rush.”
Denny’s released the following statement after the trial and settlement.
“We continue to believe that this tragedy was the result of a random act of violence that could not have been foreseen or prevented by the company or its local restaurant personnel. We understand that our insurance carrier chose to enter into a settlement for a much lower amount in the interest of bringing closure to this matter. Our sympathies have always been with the victims of this senseless act and we hope the best for them in the future.”