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Snohomish County Pays $1 Million Settlement in Death of Man in Chemical Cloud

by Douglas Ankney

Snohomish County, Washington, agreed to pay Michelle Vincent $1 million to settle her claim that the county killed her husband Michael with a chemical cloud.

On April 21, 2011, Sergeant Rogers of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department (“SCSD”) led Deputies Chad Humphries, Michael Valfeados, and Michael Sutherland in a training exercise at a gravel pit just outside Darrington, Washington. The deputies comprised what was known as the now-disbanded Civil Disturbance Unit (“CDU”). The exercise included the use of CS gas (a.k.a. “tear gas”), smoke bombs, pyrotechnic grenades, stingerball grenades, CS barricade penetrating munitions, speed heat rounds, CS skat canisters, and OC gas.

The deputies had received extensive instruction in the use of these materials and were well aware of their dangers. While engaging in the exercise, and during the cleanup of the spent canisters afterward, the men were careful to don gas masks and latex gloves.

At the end of the exercise, the expended and uncharged gas canisters were placed into five “family-sized” trash bags for hauling back to the North Precinct Office in Arlington.

But, on the trip back, Sutherland’s nose began to run and his eyes watered — followed by a nosebleed. He radioed Rogers, informed him he had been exposed to the CS gas, and told him he could no longer drive. The deputies stopped at the Darrington fire station where they removed the garbage bags from their vehicles and attempted to clean themselves. It was then that Rogers placed the garbage bags filled with spent canisters and other munitions in a dumpster located in the middle of Darrington.

Six days later, a driver of a garbage truck emptied the dumpster into the truck. When the driver compressed the garbage with the truck’s hydraulics, the canisters released their contents. A plume of smoke containing poisonous gases spread throughout the town. Eighteen people were treated and released from the hospital.

Later that day, Michael Vincent arrived home from a doctor’s appointment. The poison cloud aggravated his chronic breathing condition, and he suffered respiratory failure. Vincent died at a nearby hospital six days later.

According to the lawsuit, his wife observed him suffering for nearly a week with “pre-death terror and anxiety.”

While the County admitted to no wrongdoing, it agreed to settle, in part, because of the extensive medical testimony that would attribute Vincent’s death to the cloud. (More than 150 medical professionals who treated Vincent are named in the complaint.) David Brown, the plaintiff’s attorney, said, “One million dollars sends a powerful message, but just as important were the changes Snohomish County made in the way it handles and disposes of toxic riot-control gas.”


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