Judge reduces damages over murder of missing woman’s sons

Posted at 7:11 AM, September 17, 2020 and last updated 6:14 PM, June 8, 2023

Susan Marie Powell (NamUs)

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A judge in Washington state has reduced the damages in a wrongful death case brought by Susan Cox Powell’s parents on behalf of her sons.

Judith and Charles Cox had said the state didn’t do enough to keep their 7- and 5-year-old grandsons safe from their father, who killed the boys in 2012. Jurors found the state Department of Social and Health Services negligent in July and awarded $98.5 million to the Cox family for the pain and suffering of Charlie and Braden Powell.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh on Tuesday reduced that by two-thirds Tuesday, to about $32.8 million, The News Tribune reported.

“This becomes a very difficult decision for the court,” Rumbaugh said. “It’s whether the size of the verdict in light of the evidence produced shocks the conscience of the court, and in this case it does.”

Lawyers for the state had filed a motion for a new trial or a ruling to reduce or throw out the verdict. It argued in part, “The jury verdict for Plaintiffs’ damages was so excessive as to be ‘flagrantly outrageous and extravagant’ on its face.”

A response filed by the Cox family’s attorneys argued in part: “The jury was conscientious, diligent and nothing in the record suggests they acted with passion or prejudice. It faithfully performed its constitutional duty in reaching a damages award; that award must be respected.”

Rumbaugh noted that passion and prejudice can be unconscious. The facts of this case, he said, are “bound to bestir passion in the hearts and minds of any rational person.”

Braden and Charlie Powell were killed by Josh Powell during a supervised visit at his Graham-area home. He attacked the boys with a hatchet and set fire to the house. Josh Powell also died.

He was being investigated at the time in the disappearance of his wife from their Utah home in December 2009. She is presumed dead. After her disappearance, he moved the children to his father’s Puyallup home.

The boys were taken into protective custody after investigators searched that home for evidence in their mother’s disappearance and found pornography. Steven Powell, Josh Powell’s father, was convicted of voyeurism and child pornography.

The boys were placed with the Coxes, and Josh Powell rented the house in Graham. On Feb. 5, 2012, Josh Powell locked the DSHS-contracted supervisor out of his home and killed the children.

The verdict form in July showed jurors found damages for each boy’s estate to be $57.5 million, and that they found $8.2 million of those damages for each child “proximately caused by the intentional criminal acts of Joshua Powell, and not proximately caused by the state.”

Rumbaugh’s order decreases the damages against the state from $49.2 million for each child to $16.4 million.

“The trial team will be consulting with the Cox family to decide the appropriate next steps,” attorney Ted Buck said in a statement.