SPOKANE, Wash. - Local government officials were not negligent in the death of an elderly man who had reported for jury duty and was later found covered with snow outside a Washington state courthouse, jurors ruled.
Kay Mita, 84, reported for jury duty in the city of Spokane on Nov. 26, 2007, but did not return to the courtroom after a lunch break. He was found dead of exposure the next day, slumped against a trash container next to the base of the courthouse steps.
Mita's family sued Spokane County. While the jury on Thursday found that the county was not negligent, it asked officials to update policies on how a person should be determined "at risk."
"I think that's an indication of how serious they took their jobs as jurors," attorney Heather Yakely, who defended the county, told the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane. "One of the things the jurors told me was to talk to the communications centre to see if they can do more to make it as professional and effective and successful as possible."
Richard Eymann, attorney for Mita's family, said his clients were disappointed but he hoped the county would address the issues they raised.
The family's lawsuit claimed the county mishandled a missing-person call and provided false assurances that police would search for Mita. The county denied those claims in court documents.
In closing arguments Thursday, John Allison, another attorney for Mita's family, said the county was negligent in not sending the missing-person report to police so they could launch a search the night Mita didn't return home.
Mita's son, Floyd, believed police would search for his father after he called the Spokane Crime Reporting Center, Allison said. As a result, he stayed with his distraught mother that night instead of going to search himself.
The couple had been married for 58 years "when he froze to death on the steps of this building," Eymann said of the Spokane County Courthouse.
Kay Mita was the son of Japanese immigrants who spent three years in a World War II internment camp in Wyoming. Lawyers for the family said during trial that he was excited to serve on a jury.
Perhaps Mita saw jury service "as a way to put out of my mind that when I was a young boy I was interred in a Japanese internment camp and sent all the way to Wyoming," Eymann said.
The attorney said Mita died a slow, painful death from hypothermia and that statistically he was expected to live for six more years.
Yakely, the lawyer for Spokane County, said the case did not rise to negligence.
"Simply because there is a loss of life does not mean it's anybody's fault," Yakely said.