Lawsuit over Pierce County infant who was shot dismissed with confidential settlements


A lawsuit filed in the aftermath of a shooting that injured an infant at a Lakewood apartment complex has been resolved with confidential settlements and one defendant getting dismissed from the case, court records show.

The suit, filed in May 2023 on behalf of the boy, sought accountability for allowing the alleged gunman to live at Prairie Oaks, the housing development for vulnerable families where the shooting occurred two months earlier. Earnest Lee Hamilton had a criminal record and purportedly caused trouble at the complex.

Hamilton, 42, pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree assault and two lesser charges stemming from the shooting in a case that court records show is scheduled for trial June 25.

He is accused of firing at least 22 rifle shots into his neighbor's apartment, leading to the boy being struck by bullet fragments while inside a baby swing.

The lawsuit originally named two defendants: Living Access Support Alliance (LASA), a homeless service nonprofit that operates the complex, and Spinnaker Property Management. An amended complaint in August added the Tacoma Housing Authority and Pierce County Housing Authority as defendants.

The suit raised the argument that Hamilton was negligently permitted to live at Prairie Oaks. He should never have passed a screening and the defendants failed to act on his history of violent behavior toward other tenants prior to the shooting, it claimed.

In January, the case against LASA, Spinnaker and the Tacoma Housing Authority was settled, court records show. The matter against the PCHA was dismissed on June 7, officially putting an end to the lawsuit.

"We were able to resolve the case," attorney Brian Mickelsen, who was representing the plaintiff, said in a brief interview.

Mickelsen declined to answer any questions, saying the settlement terms were confidential.

Prairie Oaks offers housing to people who had been experiencing chronic homelessness. LASA executive director Jason Scales said in a statement that it's significantly traumatic for individuals to have nowhere to go and to face a lack of affordable housing options.

"Our hearts go out to the child who suffered additional trauma while living in the complex," Scales said. "We hope the settlement will provide him with long-term housing safety and stability."

A Spinnaker representative likewise offered sympathy.

"This was an unfortunate incident that deeply affected all parties involved," Kathy Talerico, the property management company's accounting director, told The News Tribune. "Our hearts and prayers are with those affected and we wish them the best in their healing process."

Messages to lawyers representing the two housing authorities were not returned.

A troubled history

Before the shooting, Hamilton had allegedly committed domestic violence against his girlfriend, threatened other tenants with a gun, carried an assault rifle on the complex grounds and caused disturbances, according to the lawsuit, which claimed LASA and Spinnaker never called police or brought in security.

In answers filed in court, attorneys for the defendants denied allegations in the complaint.

The screening process was central to the claims against the PCHA, which administers the federally funded and regulated Section 8 voucher for the unit that Hamilton lived in. The unit is under a contract with the Tacoma and Pierce County housing authorities, court records show.

The PCHA was responsible for conducting the background check on Hamilton. Before then, Hamilton had been living with his girlfriend despite not being on the lease, according to court filings, when his girlfriend — in response to compliance notices from Spinnaker and eviction threats — requested his addition to the lease and unit voucher.

Hamilton's criminal record included a 2021 arrest in Texas for alleged possession of a firearm as a felon, as well as convictions outside of Washington for robbery, child cruelty and firearm possession between 2000 and 2016, according to court records.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, attorneys for the PCHA said that Hamilton's background check through the Washington State Patrol — the agency the housing authority typically runs checks through — passed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development screening standards.

A housing specialist for the PCHA, in a deposition, described examples that would disqualify someone under federal rules and authority policy: a felony conviction within the past year, a conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine or being a registered sex offender, among them. Unless arrests point to disqualifying conduct, they alone weren't enough to fail a screening.

"Ultimately, the depositions in this case have confirmed that not only was PCHA neither the landowner, the landlord, nor property manager in for Prairie Oaks, but there was nothing in E.H.'s criminal background, either known or unknown, that would have permitted PCHA to discriminate against him and deny adding him to (his girlfriend's) voucher," the dismissal motion said.

Attorneys representing the plaintiff suggested that the PCHA essentially bungled the background check and was downplaying the control it exercised over Prairie Oaks. Attorneys also claimed that the housing authority previously expressed concern about Hamilton's criminal history.

A Pierce County Superior Court judge sided with the PCHA, granting its motion to dismiss and ordering all claims against it be thrown out with prejudice, meaning they can't be re-filed, court records show.


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