Kent-based Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority paid a Des Moines grandmother $100,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit she filed last year for malicious prosecution and violation of her constitutional rights after she was arrested and charged for a fire she didn’t start in 2016 at a Kent Dollar Store and strip mall.
Attorney Sean Gillespie filed the suit Nov. 27 against Capt. Eric Pedersen, a Puget Sound Fire arson investigator, on behalf of Linda Poplawski in U.S. District Court in Seattle. King County prosecutors dropped the first-degree arson case against Poplawski shortly before her trial in August 2017 when information about another suspect came to light.
Both parties engaged in mediation and settled the case on Oct. 3, according to an email from Lindsey Arsanto, Puget Sound Fire human resource manager, to the Kent Reporter.
“In exchange for payment of $100,000, Ms. Poplawski agreed to dismiss all claims against Capt. Pedersen with prejudice,” Arsanto said. “Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Ms. Poplawski also released any and all possible claims against Capt. Pedersen’s employer, the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, which was not a defendant in the lawsuit.
“The settlement agreement signed by Ms. Poplawski expressly provides that Capt. Pedersen and the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority deny any wrongdoing and deny all liability whatsoever for Ms. Poplawski’s claims.”
The three-alarm fire destroyed a Dollar Tree store and strip mall on Nov. 13, 2016, in the 23400 block of Pacific Highway South on the West Hill. Nobody was injured in the fire, although about 20 people were inside the Dollar Tree when the fire broke out. Seventy-five firefighters responded.
Gillespie, the attorney in the civil suit for Poplawski, disagreed with Puget Sound Fire officials that Pedersen didn’t do anything wrong.
“Pedersen had many opportunities over nine months to turn over exculpatory evidence collected in the first 24 hours of his investigation, and he failed to do it,” Gillespie said in an email. “As soon as that evidence came to light, the state dropped the charge.
“Luckily, Ms. Poplawski’s defense lawyers left no stone unturned to find the evidence and save her potentially years in prison for something she didn’t do.”
Poplawski, 66, hopes some good comes out of her lawsuit for others.
“She’s extremely grateful for their (defense attorneys) hard work and support and looking forward to moving on from that horrifying and unfair episode in her life,” Gillespie said. “She hopes her lawsuit makes it less likely to happen to someone else.”
Puget Sound Fire’s decision to pay a settlement to Poplawski was made by the agency’s insurer, Arsanto said. The U.S. District Court dismissed all claims in the lawsuit on Oct. 17.
“It is not an admission of fault or liability,” Arsanto said about the payment.
Puget Sound Fire officials declined to answer questions about whether Pedersen served any type of suspension or faced any discipline for the arrest of the wrong person. Officials also declined to address if the case remains open as far as who started the fire.
The cities of Kent, Covington, Maple Valley and SeaTac contract with Puget Sound Fire for fire and medical calls. The city of Kent contracts with Puget Sound Fire through an interlocal agreement for arson investigations, who are employees of Puget Sound Fire.
The suit claimed that Pedersen, “willfully withheld exculpatory evidence, violating her (Poplawski’s) rights under the Sixth Amendment.”
That evidence was a 911 caller who saw a man run across the street shortly after the fire and that the man told the caller he was in the store arguing with his wife, thought he was going to be caught stealing and started the fire as a distraction.
“Pedersen had independent and compelling information pointing to a previously convicted arsonist entirely unconnected to Ms. Poplawski, but he withheld that information from the defense team for the entirety of the prosecution,” according to the complaint. “The defense team did not learn of this exculpatory evidence until nine months later, when it was on the brink of trial. Even then, the evidence was provided by Kent Police only in response to a defense subpoena.”
Pedersen, who has worked more than 30 years for the fire department, arrested Poplawski for investigation of arson about two hours after the fire broke out. He based his arrest primarily on a store clerk who claimed she heard Poplawski say something about being upset about the store having no shopping carts available and then said something about burning the store down. Poplawski pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Poplawski, 64 at the time of her arrest, spent about 25 days in jail after her arrest and was on electronic home detention until June 15, 2017, according to Brian Beattie, the public defender who helped get the charge dropped.
“This highlights the importance of vigorous public defense so that innocent people are not wrongfully accused – or worse, wrongfully convicted,” Beattie said in an email for an August 2017 Kent Reporter story about the charge being dropped.