A Seattle police officer's ruse after a 2018 fender bender is the basis for a wrongful-death lawsuit filed earlier this month against the city on behalf of three women devastated by the subsequent suicide of Porter Feller, a Seattle man who was led to believe he had critically injured a woman in what was really a minor collision.
Feller's mother, Renée Thomas, and friends Maggie Parks and Amy Marderosian claim the Seattle Police Department was negligent in its hiring, training, retention and supervision of Officer Matthew Kerby, now 34. They claim Kerby's actions resulted in the negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to the lawsuit, filed June 4 in King County Superior Court.
Although the lawsuit does not include a dollar amount, the women's attorneys, Mike Maxwell and Greg Marshall, said their notice to the city filed more than two months ago indicated they are seeking $4 million in damages.
Maxwell said the lawsuit is meant to hold Seattle police accountable and hopefully change what he sees as the department's permissive culture that tolerated Kerby's use of an unnecessary lie. Kerby was suspended for six days without pay for the ruse.
While driving on East Madison Street on Capitol Hill on May 29, 2018, Feller rolled back into another car and then drove away from the scene. While looking for Feller for the hit-and-run, Kerby falsely told Parks — who allowed Feller to use her address to register his car — that a woman struck by Feller might not survive. Kerby was heard on body-worn camera telling his partner, "It's a lie, but it's fun."
Concerned, Parks called Feller and told him that the officer said the crash had left someone critically injured, she said. Although Feller, 40, initially didn't think he had hit anyone, in the coming days he became worried he had hurt a pedestrian and could face prison time, his friends said.
Feller injected himself with a fatal mix of drugs on June 3, 2018, five days after the collision. Marderosian, who was Feller's roommate, found his body, the lawsuit says. Feller's mother previously told The Seattle Times she believed he suffered from untreated depression.
Although ruses and lies are valid law-enforcement tactics, "they should be used only when necessary because unnecessary lies breed a lack of trust" in police, Maxwell said. He said the hit-and-run crash Feller was involved in caused only a couple hundred dollars in damage to another vehicle.
During an internal investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), Kerby claimed he used the ruse because he needed Feller's phone number quickly — which Parks gave him — but then failed to pass it along to the officer who had requested it, Marshall said.
"The whole thing was just a tragic, unnecessary loss," he said.
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in an email, "We are reviewing the complaint and intend to investigate the brought claims in this matter."
Kerby's ruse came to light after Thomas, Feller's mother, received a letter from State Farm, seeking Feller's insurance information a month after he died, The Seattle Times reported in a February 2020 investigation. When she called the company, she discovered the collision was a fender bender with no reported injuries. Parks then submitted a public-disclosure request for video of the hit-and-run investigation and confirmed that Kerby had lied.
In disciplining Kerby, former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best found that it would be "speculative" to link the ruse and Feller's suicide five days later, watering down a conclusion by Andrew Myerberg, the OPA's civilian director, that the falsehood "shocked the conscience" and contributed to Feller's death.
Marshall said Best didn't speak to any of Feller's friends and for them, "it was obvious what he was upset about."