CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Judge slashes jury damages in lawsuit over deaths of Susan Powell’s sons

Sep 15, 2020, 2:35 PM | Updated: 4:23 pm

Powell jury settlement...

Charlie and Braden Powell, the sons of Susan and Josh Powell, sit on their grandfather, Chuck Cox's, lap. (Photo: Chuck and Judy Cox / Associated Press)

(Photo: Chuck and Judy Cox / Associated Press)

TACOMA, WA– A judge on Tuesday slashed by two-thirds the nearly $100 million in damages awarded to the parents of missing woman, Susan Cox Powell. The original damages were awarded at the end of July in the case of the 2012 deaths of Powell’s two children at the hands of their father. 

“My conscience is still shocked by the verdict size today, as it was on the day the verdict was delivered,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh said.

Lawsuit goes to trial

Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox sued the state of Washington‘s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in 2013, following the Feb. 5, 2012 murder-suicide involving their son-in-law, Josh Powell, and their grandchildren, Charlie and Braden Powell.

The civil suit accused DSHS social workers of negligence in their handling of the Powell children, who died during a court-authorized supervised visitation at a home Josh Powell had rented.

During a weeks-long trial earlier this year, which also endured a four-month delay due to a shutdown of the court over coronavirus concerns, witnesses testified in detail about the wounds each child had suffered at the hands of their father. Josh Powell had attacked his sons with a hatchet before setting fire to the home. Witnesses at the trial testified the children were conscious and suffering for roughly 10 to 20 minutes before they actually died as a result of smoke inhalation.

The jury ruled unanimously at the conclusion of the trial that the state agency had acted negligently. Their verdict levied a $98.5 million penalty against the state. Weeks later, attorneys for the state filed a motion requesting a new trial or a reduction in the damages.

Judge reduces verdict amount 

In a hearing on that request, Judge Rumbaugh said it was clear to him that the graphic nature of the killings had played into the jury’s decision.

“These were extreme and inflammatory facts that related to the killings of these boys,” Rumbaugh said. “They’re bound to bestir passion in the hearts and minds of any rational person.”

Rumbaugh stressed the jurors were likely not even consciously aware of their own “passion” in setting such a high dollar figure for damages.

“It’s not the size of the verdict alone, most certainly, that is an indicator,” Rumbaugh said. “It’s whether the size of the verdict in light of the evidence produced shocks the conscience of the court. And in this case, it does.”

As a result, Rumbaugh cut the jury’s award to $32.8 million. Or, he said, the parties could retry the case.

The impact of the decision 

The damages reduction in the case of the Powell children comes as a blow to the Coxes. The family says the high dollar awarded by the jury would serve as an important motivation for the state of Washington to reform its child welfare practices.

“The state continues to ignore their failures despite overwhelming evidence,” Chuck Cox said in a text message to KSL following the announcement of the judge’s decision. “Judge Rumbaugh chose to essentially ignore all the evidence, insult and dismiss the jury’s diligent work, and impose his own biased arbitrary judgement.”

During the trial, witnesses for the Coxes accused DSHS and its social workers of showing “reunification bias” by attempting to place Charlie and Braden Powell back with their father, despite Josh Powell’s status as the sole suspect in the suspected killing of his wife.

“We cannot accept this ‘business as usual’ attitude from DSHS, the State or the court,” Cox said. “Policies and procedures cannot continue to be ignored at the expense of the safety of the children.”

Susan Powell disappeared from the couple’s home in West Valley City, Utah on Dec. 7, 2009. Investigators believe she is dead but her body has never been located. Josh Powell was never arrested or formally charged with a crime related to his wife’s disappearance.

Josh Powell lost custody of his sons in September of 2011, weeks after police served a search warrant related to Susan Powell’s disappearance at the Puyallup, Washington home of his father, Steve Powell, where Josh Powell and his sons were then living. During the search, police located voyeur videos created by Steve Powell, some of which included images of nude underage females.

The question of custody 

In court filings at the time, police said they could not rule out the possibility that Josh Powell might have assisted his father with the creation of those videos, raising concerns about his fitness as a parent for Charlie and Braden.

DSHS caseworkers subsequently placed the children with their maternal grandparents, the Coxes, against Josh Powell’s objections. Powell then spent several months attempting to regain custody.

That effort culminated in a Feb. 1, 2012 court hearing where a judge ordered supervised visitation to continue, while not objecting to a DSHS plan to continue holding those visits at Powell’s rented home.

However, the judge also ordered Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph before she would consider allowing him full custody.

Powell killed himself and the children days later, during one of those visits.

You can learn more about the disappearance of Susan Powell and the death of her sons by listening to the ‘COLD’ podcast here or visiting the COLD podcast website.  

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Crime, Police + Courts

Jorge Rafael Medina-Reyes pleaded guilty on Thursday to the kidnapping and murder of Nicole Solorio...

Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Second man pleads guilty to kidnapping, murder of Kearns woman in 2021

Jorge Rafael Medina-Reyes, 25, pleaded guilty Thursday to murder, a first-degree felony, and aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony.

15 hours ago

american fork police in front of home where couple was found dead...

Sam Herrera

Couple found dead in American Fork home identified

American Fork Police identified 57-year-old Olin Johnson and his wife, 52-year-old Kerilyn Johnson, as the couple found dead in their home on Thursday.

19 hours ago

washington city murders suspect...

Pat Reavy, KSL.com

Southern Utah woman charged with aggravated murder; prosecutors won’t seek death penalty

A 28-year-old woman accused of brutally killing her parents in their home is now facing 11 felony charges, including 10 first-degree felonies.

19 hours ago

police look for hit-and-run driver, image of the car, a newer model Ford Explorer SUV , shown...

Heather Peterson

SLCPD asks for help finding hit-and-run driver

Salt Lake City Police are looking for a hit-and-run driver involved in an accident last week that left a woman severely injured.

22 hours ago

Grocery store shooting...

Amie Schaeffer

3 dead, 10 wounded in Arkansas grocery store shooting

Two people are dead and several were wounded in a Arkansas grocery store shooting Friday afternoon. The shooter was also badly wounded.

22 hours ago

a 17-year-old boy is facing a charge of murder and 18 other felonies tied to a gang-related drive-b...

Pat Reavy, KSL.com

Teen faces 19 felonies in gang-related drive-by shooting death in Murray

A 17-year-old boy is facing 19 felony charges accusing him of participating in a drive-by shooting that left one dead and others injured.

2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Underwater shot of the fisherman holding the fish...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Your Bear Lake fishing guide

Bear Lake offers year-round fishing opportunities. By preparing ahead of time, you might go home with a big catch!

A group of people cut a purple ribbon...

Comcast

Comcast announces major fiber network expansion in Utah

Comcast's commitment to delivering extensive coverage signifies a monumental leap toward a digitally empowered future for Utahns.

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Judge slashes jury damages in lawsuit over deaths of Susan Powell’s sons