SPOKANE, Wash. -- Ten years after an elderly man who had reported for jury duty was found later covered in snow and dead of exposure outside a Washington state courthouse, jurors are hearing a negligence lawsuit brought by his relatives against county officials.
Opening statements began Monday in the case of Kay Mita, who reported for jury duty in the city of Spokane on Nov. 26, 2007 but did not return to the courtroom after a lunch break and never made it home. He was found dead the next day, slumped against a trash container next to the base of the courthouse steps.
Lawyer John Allison said Mita, 84, was the son of Japanese immigrants who spent three years in an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II.
Allison told jurors that Mita rarely spoke about that experience but was excited to serve on a jury, The Spokesman-Review reported. He viewed the opportunity as a long-delayed acknowledgment of the injustice he had faced.
The trial in Spokane County Superior Court is expected to last several days, KXLY-TV reported.
After Mita did not make it home, concerned relatives called the Spokane Crime Reporting Center, a non-emergency line, for help.
Neither Spokane police nor courthouse security guards, who let Mita to warm himself by a heater in the courthouse but later ushered him outside when they closed the building, knew about missing person report, the newspaper said.
The family's lawsuit against the county claims that the county mishandled the missing person call and provided false assurances that police would search for the elderly man. The county has denied those claims in court documents.
Allison told jurors that Mita died "because of a dangerous breakdown in the system that we all depend on for public safety," The Spokesman-Review reported.
The county's attorney, Heather Yakely, told jurors Monday that such calls come in often and are not forwarded to dispatchers unless the missing person is determined to be "at risk."
Mita's widow, Shizuko, and their only son, Floyd, sued the county and its contracted security firm, Guardsmark LLC, in 2010 after filing a claim for $5 million in damages. Among other things, they claimed the county provided false assurances that authorities would search for Mita following a missing person call.
A judge dismissed the claims, ruling the county and Guardsmark did not owe Mita a duty of care. In 2014, a state appeals court reversed the decision and reinstated the claims.
The lower court judge again dismissed Guardsmark from the lawsuit in 2015 but allowed the claims against Spokane County to proceed to trial. Guardsmark no longer provides security for the courthouse.
Allison argued that Kelli Johnson, then an operator in the county's crime reporting center, acted negligently by failing to inform police and security guards that Mita had been reported missing.
Johnson testified Monday that she could not remember the call she received in 2007. She said weather and being 84 years old were not risk factors for referring the case directly to police. She also said she did not make assurances to Mita's family that authorities were searching for his father.
The county's attorney, Yakely, said a court employee who encountered Mita at the courthouse on the day he reported for jury duty will testify that he appeared fine.