Public Safety

$2 million settlement between Steele family, city of Burlington finalized years after fatal police shooting

Autumn Steele's parents, Gina and Mark Colbert, are photographed in 2015 with her dog, Sammy. An officer told investigators that he was forced to shoot because the dog attacked him, and that he accidentally hit Steele. 

 CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post  photo by Melissa Golden
Autumn Steele's parents, Gina and Mark Colbert, are photographed in 2015 with her dog, Sammy. An officer told investigators that he was forced to shoot because the dog attacked him, and that he accidentally hit Steele. CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post photo by Melissa Golden
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DAVENPORT — A U.S. federal district judge has given final approval on the $2 million settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by the estate of Autumn Steele, who was fatally shot by a Burlington police officer in 2015.

Approval of the settlement by U.S. District Judge James Gritzner was listed Tuesday on the federal court’s website for the Southern District of Iowa.

According to documents on the website, the attorneys in the case “hereby stipulate to the dismissal of all causes and actions” filed by the Steele estate against the city of Burlington and police officer Jesse Hill “because a settlement has been reached in this matter.”

Dave O’Brien, a Cedar Rapids attorney who represented the Steele family in the lawsuit, said Wednesday the final agreement requires the city of Burlington to pay $2 million in damages to Gabriel Steele, Autumn Steele’s husband; her two young sons, who were 3 and 6 years old at the time of her death; and her mother, Gina Colbert.

The specific dollar amount each plaintiff will receive in the settlement remains confidential.

“I redacted the breakdown of the settlement between the plaintiffs since that is not public record,” O’Brien said.

He also said the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the settlement is the final judgment and the federal lawsuit is permanently closed.

Steele’s family filed the wrongful death lawsuit in federal court in Davenport almost two years after Hill fired his weapon -- allegedly to fend off the Steeles’ snarling dog -- during a domestic dispute between Autumn Steele and her husband on Jan. 6, 2015, resulting in Autumn Steele’s death.

The lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial Aug. 20 in U.S. Federal District Court in Davenport.

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Burlington City Manager Jim Ferneau said Wednesday he wasn’t aware the settlement had been finalized. He referred all questions to the Davenport attorneys who represented Burlington in the lawsuit.

According to the settlement, “each party shall be solely responsible for payment of each party’s own attorneys fees and costs” in connection with the lawsuit.

The city of Burlington has said funds paid as part of this settlement will come out of its policy with Travelers Insurance.

In a related matter, the decision to settle the lawsuit rather than go to trial will not affect a motion filed by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council last month seeking to unseal court documents filed in the federal lawsuit.

The council filed its motion to intervene in response to the settlement of the lawsuit between the Steele family and Burlington. Documents in the case were sealed ahead of trial, but with the settlement a trial was circumvented, meaning no evidence would be presented before the public in court.

Michael Giudicessi, representing the FOI Council, said the settlement of the lawsuit will not affect the council’s attempt to unseal the court records.

“Consummation of the $2 million settlement does not resolve the issues the FOI Council raised concerning the public’s right of access to court records,” Guidicessi said Wednesday. “We believe Judge Gritzner will rule soon on the matters submitted last Wednesday.”

Following oral arguments last week, Gritzner said he would issue his ruling on the council’s request as soon as possible. He gave no timetable when that would occur.

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Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, recently said his organization filed the motion seeking to unseal the documents because it was disturbed by the federal court’s decision to seal numerous documents in the the wrongful death lawsuit.

“The fundamental issue is (the fact) these documents being sealed by the court,” Evans said, shortly after the council’s motion was filed. “The public is being cutoff from access to the motions and arguments ... The sealing of the records prevents the public the right to look at these documents ... They need to be unsealed.”

In another matter related to the Steele shooting, the settlement will not directly affect separate complaints filed with the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) a few months after the shooting by the Steele family and The Hawk Eye. In the complaints, they accuse state and local law enforcement officials of violating the Iowa open records law.

Last month, a hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland, who was hired by the IPIB to preside over the contested hearing.

Following that hearing, Doland gave attorneys until Sept. 4 to file final briefs and arguments. Following final review of the lawyers’ arguments, she will submit her written findings of fact to the IPIB.

If she recommends the files or any portion of the requested material be released, the nine-member information board then can reject her findings and dismiss the complaints, or order some or all of the requested records be released to the public.

The two complaints were filed several weeks after the shooting when the Burlington Police Department, Des Moines County Attorney’s Office and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation declined to release investigative files related to the fatal shooting.

The central issue in the ongoing battle before the IPIB is whether law enforcement officers’ investigative reports, including police body camera videos, dash board videos and 911 calls, are exempt from public release under Iowa’s open records law.

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