Appeals Court Rules Family of Slain Pierce Deputy Can’t Sue County; ‘Shameful,’ Wife Says


The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed a Pierce County judge’s 2021 ruling Tuesday that the county is immune from claims in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a slain sheriff’s deputy.

Daniel McCartney was fatally shot in January 2018 while responding alone to a report of a home-invasion robbery in the Frederickson area, which was just outside his assigned patrol zone. His family alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that staffing shortages put him at unnecessary risk and asked for an order that the Sheriff’s Department increase hiring to “prevent a repeat of another wrongful deputy death.”

The appeals court ruled that the county is immune from the lawsuit because elected council members and the sheriff make discretionary decisions about law enforcement staffing, and court precedent under the so-called “professional rescuer doctrine” holds that law enforcement officers assume certain risks as a part of their jobs.

The wife of McCartney, Cierra McCartney, called the appellate decision “shameful” in comments shared through her attorney Joan Mell.

There is no local law mandating standards for law enforcement staffing that the courts can enforce, the ruling says. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Karena Kirkendoll issued similar findings in dismissing the case last year.

Pierce County Council Chair Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Department is short on deputies but said that the county’s budget is already strained with 75% of the general fund going toward public safety and the criminal justice system. Young said the council has increased deputy salaries and offered bonuses to attract officers while also calling on the Legislature to allow the county to collect more taxes.

“We want to have proper staffing levels, not only to protect the public, but to protect our deputies,” said Young, who noted the department has never been fully staffed since he joined the council in 2015.

A Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson declined to comment about the appellate ruling and any recent safety initiatives for deputies.

A staffing assessment from the same year McCartney was killed found the department was 40 deputies short, impacting the effectiveness and safety of patrol personnel, according to the 34-page appellate ruling. The assessment also showed the department struggled to find qualified candidates, and the county did not allocate enough funding to the Sheriff’s Department for proper staffing.

As a result, the Sheriff’s Department told deputies to wait for backup on dangerous calls, the staffing assessment cited in the ruling concluded.

When McCartney saw the suspects running away the night he was killed, he gave chase, according to court documents. Within a minute he reported gunshots, and his radio went silent.

The day before, he worked back-to-back shifts from 3 p.m. until 6 a.m. and then volunteered to take a shift the following evening for a sick deputy, court documents show. He got less than six hours of sleep going into the shift he never returned home from.

The person who killed McCartney was sentenced to life without parole. Two others were sentenced in connection to his death, and one suspect fatally shot himself at the scene.

In appealing the trial court decision, Mell said she hoped appellate judges would recognize a higher standard of accountability for workplace safety issues within law enforcement agencies and revisit doctrines that give elected officials broad immunity from similar lawsuits.

“It’s very worrisome that we have no legal vehicle or avenue to hold officials accountable for the public safety of our officers,” Mell told The News Tribune.

“Cierra McCartney feels strongly that her husband’s memory shouldn’t be reduced to no changes in the department.”

Mell said she will examine the appellate court’s ruling more closely before determining whether to file an appeal.

McCartney was hired as a sheriff’s deputy in 2014 and is survived by his wife, Cierra, and three sons.