Supreme Court sets aside $7 million award to widow of slain officer

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The killer of a Palmer police officer is clearly liable for civil damages for the shooting, according to the Alaska Supreme Court, since he's been convicted of murdering Officer Jim Rowland Jr.

But the high court says Kim Cook is entitled to his day in court to determine just how much those damages should be.

The court ruled Friday that a default judgment against Cook for $7 million should be thrown out, and the case should be heard by a new judge.

The ruling comes in a civil suit against Cook that was filed by Rowland's widow less than two weeks after the May 15, 1999, shooting.

Just three weeks after the suit was filed, a default judgment was entered against Cook.

And 10 days after that, Superior Court Judge Beverly W. Cutler accepted the widow's calculation that the estate was due $1.8 million in actual damages, plus punitive damages of three times that amount, for a total of more than $7 million.

All that happened without a peep from Cook, who finally asked the court to set aside the defaults a month later, in July 1999.

The judge set a hearing on that motion the following month. But Cook sent a handwritten note saying he could not get to the hearing. He was being held in a maximum-security cell at the time.

Cutler went ahead with the hearing anyway and rejected Cook's motion to set aside the judgment. She also ruled that it was too late for him to request a new judge.

Alaska's highest court disagreed.

The judge abused her discretion in refusing to set aside the default judgment, the court ruled Friday.

''We have consistently held that disposition of a case on the merits is strongly preferred to judgment by default,'' the opinion says.

Cook argued that his failure to meet the deadlines amounted to ''excusable neglect,'' and the court agreed.

Cook himself suffered two gunshot wounds in the altercation that led to Rowland's death, the court noted. He had undergone two surgeries, was on pain medication, and had limited use of his right hand.

He was in a maximum-security prison and did not have access to a telephone until after the 20-day limit had passed, according to the opinion. He had limited knowledge of the court system and was facing a murder charge.

With all that, the opinion says, ''his neglect in responding before the Superior Court entered a default and awarded default judgment in his case was excusable.''

Cook argued that if his assets had not been taken away so quickly, Cook might have been able to hire a lawyer more to his liking for the criminal case, and that case might have had a different outcome, said Ruth Botstein, one of the lawyers on the civil case.

''He deserves an opportunity to present evidence and arguments on the extent of his liability for damages,'' Botstein said. ''This decision gives him a fair shake in terms of going in and doing that.''

Neither Botstein nor a lawyer for the estate and widow would reveal the extent of Cook's assets.

The big damage award ''was a statement that had to be made,'' said Eric Jensen, one of the lawyers for Rowland's widow, Hallie, acting for the officer's estate. ''But you don't want to go through all this unless it's worthwhile.'' He said Cook had some investment accounts, but he wouldn't reveal any details.

''We'll take this case back to a jury for determination of the damages,'' Jensen said. ''I'm going to argue that they should be the same as they were the last time.''

The court said Cook's conviction for murder prevents him from arguing he was acting in self-defense when he shot Rowland.

But, the court noted, ''Cook claims that if he were allowed to present his story of the events leading to Officer Rowland's death, punitive damages might be assessed differently, or not at all, and that in any case, testimony about his assets could support a reduced punitive damage award. In addition, he points out that in certain respects Rowland's award for past and future economic damages are not supported by underlying data and calculations, and this may be vulnerable to challenge.''

In addition to sending the case back for a hearing on the damages, the justices decided Cook's earlier request for a new judge should be granted.

While three judges agreed that Cook should get a new hearing, and three agreed he deserved a new judge, they were not the same three. And there were three separate opinions aside from the main opinion, as various justices registered their separate legal reasonings in the case.

In the criminal case, Cook, 54, was sentenced in January 2001 to 99 years in prison. The earliest he would be eligible for parole would be when he is 84.

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