Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a settlement that was reached in the case, for a lesser amount than the jury awarded. Also, Denny’s insurance carrier is covering the expense, not the company.
A lawsuit over a shooting at Denny’s Restaurant in Kent has resulted in a $46.4 million verdict, a state record for a personal-injury case.
The jury returned after four days of deliberation Monday to announce its decision, in the Seattle courtroom of Judge Laura Middaugh.
The lion’s share of that amount – $46,348,262 – the jury awarded to Kent resident Steve Tolenoa, 31, rendered a quadriplegic during a 2007 shooting spree at the restaurant, and who has been residing in an Auburn assisted-living facility since the shooting, confined to a wheelchair and a bed.
In addition, two other Denny’s customers from that night also were awarded smaller cash awards: Lisa Beltran-Walker, who was shot in the knee, and her husband Carl Walker, for emotional distress and medical bills. Beltran-Walker has physically recovered from the shooting.
However, that will not be the dollar amount that Tolenoa and the couple will be receiving.
In order to keep his clients from having to wait through years of possible appeals, attorney Ron Perey, representing the three, agreed to a $13 million settlement from Denny’s insurance carrier. The two parties struck the agreement before the jury returned with a verdict.
“Most importantly, it eliminates any appeals,” Perey said Tuesday of the settlement, noting it was more important to ensure the case would not be bogged down in the courts, while Tolenoa lived on in lesser circumstances.
“We entered into an agreement that gave us some security…In 14 days, we should be getting a check for $13 million.”
Of Tolenoa’s reaction to the case’s end, Perey said, “he’s a happy man.”
While not granting interviews on the verdict, Denny’s did issue the following statement:
“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.”
Perey – who was able to call some of Denny’s top brass to take the stand during the trial – said Monday’s verdict was a two-pronged message.
“What’s the major impact of this? Two things,” he said. “First the jury sent a message loud and clear to Denny’s that they need to do something to protect their customers during the bar rush (when the shooting took place.)
“Secondly, they heard our plea for Steven.”
The case stems from a Jan. 21, 2007, early-morning incident at the Denny’s, located at 1246 N. Central Ave., where all three of Perey’s clients had been dining, before a fight at the restaurant erupted in gunfire.
The Kent-based restaurant, although still called Denny’s, is now actually owned by someone else, and was not part of the suit. The parent company, Denny’s was.
According to court records, Tolenoa had gone with his brother Wilven for a 2 a.m. Grand Slam breakfast that day, winding down after a softball game from the evening previous. Beltran-Walker and her husband also were at the restaurant – neither group knew the other.
At the same time, a rowdy group that included Frank Evans – identified in court documents as a gang-wannabe – had been ejected from another Kent restaurant where they had been drinking. They opted to go to Denny’s.
While there, Evans got into a fight with another customer, who beat him up. That’s when he left the restaurant and returned minutes later with a Glock .40 semiautomatic handgun, which he used to spray 11 bullets inside the restaurant.
Tolenoa, a Bible-college graduate who didn’t know Evans and had nothing to do with the fight, was hit in the back by two of the bullets. Beltran-Walker also was hit in the knee by another of the bullets.
Evans was arrested and later convicted on multiple counts of first-degree assault. He’s serving a 62-year sentence at the state penitentiary in Walla Wall.
The fact that Evans had been able to wreak the havoc he did at Denny’s was the core of the lawsuit’s argument: that Denny’s as a company was not doing enough to assure the safety of its customers and employees.
“Their failure was a managerial failure in providing protection to customers at the Kent Denny’s, when they knew there was violence going on almost every weekend,” Perey said in an interview after Monday’s verdict.
Perey’s brief outlined the reason for spotlighting the parent company in the local crime: “If off-duty Kent Police officers, or private security were hired; or if the restaurant was closed during the bar rush; or even a strong, well-trained manager/authority figure manager was on duty, Evans would never have been allowed into the restaurant-seating areas, would have been deterred from returning to the restaurant with a gun, and from shooting the gun.”
Among the 33 testifying at the nearly month-long trial were Denny’s top corporate officials: Deborah Smithart-Oglesby, chairwoman of the Denny’s board of directors and the company president and chief executive officer; and F. Mark Wolfinger, Denny’s chief financial officer.
Also testifying were Tolenoa, Beltran-Walker and her husband, Kent Police officers, witnesses to the shooting, Denny’s employees and medical experts.