A civil wrongful death suit filed by the estate of Melvin Edgar "Ed" Knutson was finally settled out of court with the final remaining defendant last month.
The final part of the settlement came between the Knutson estate and Ra and Denise Wollenburgs, who were doing business as Cactus' Jacks in Joseph at the time of Knutson's controversial death on Sept. 13, 1998. Knutson was found unconscious the morning after reported fighting during a wild Saturday night in Joseph, and subsequently died as the results of a head injury.
The two other defendants, Wallowa County and Michael Holmes, doing business as The Hydrant tavern in Joseph, also settled with the estate last year. All the defendants had been charged in the lawsuit with negligence in Knutson's death.
Terms of the three separate settlements involved were not disclosed. "There was a monetary settlement in each case, and more importantly there were additional terms which are confidential in regards to one of the defendants," said the plaintiff's attorney, Damien Yervasi of Baker City. He would not identify the defendant with the confidential terms.
Originally a judgment of $500,000 for non-economic and $500,000 for economic damages were asked for by the plaintiff against each defendant in the suit.
Holmes and the Wollenburgs had brought in two persons, Michael Bohnenkamp and Matthew Staigle, as defendants in a third person suit for the purpose of seeking the right of reimbursement. However, in the wake of the final settlement, the formal dismissal of the last complaint against them is pending.
No one was ever charged with a crime in connection with Knutson's death, despite two grand jury investigations convened by District Attorney Dan Ousley to hear evidence in the case. The Wallowa County Sheriff's Office considered the death "suspicious" and interviewed dozens of witnesses in connection with the case.
There were multiple reports of fights or assaults that night involving Knutson that preceded his death. He was found unconscious at his home in Enterprise the next morning and was transported by ambulance to St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, where he died following brain surgery.
An autopsy report after his death stated that Knutson had died of brain injury due to a "blunt impact to the head" and the manner of death "appears to be accidental." The autopsy stated that the pattern of his injuries was consistent with a fall, and "not characteristic of a 'beating' or fistfight."
The autopsy report was reportedly a major factor in the failure to charge anyone in the case.
As the result of the Knutson death, a petition drive to recall Dan Ousley, district attorney since 1994, from office was initiated in July of 1999, but failed to get enough signatures.
The original wrongful death complaint, filed in September, 2000, by Mary Knutson, as personal representative of the Melvin Edgar Knutson estate, asked for $1 million from Wallowa County and $1 million from The Hydrant. Wallowa County was accused of negligence for the alleged failure of the the sheriff's office to respond to emergency calls the night in question, while The Hydrant was charged with negligence by allegedly serving alcohol to intoxicated individuals "while knowing or having reason to know they had physically assaulted Melvin Edgar Knutson." The Wollenburgs were added to the suit at a latter date, charged with the same negligence as The Hydrant.
Yervasi said that though Bohnenkamp and Staigle were specifically named in the lawsuit as the individuals to whom the taverns had negligently served alcohol, neither were defendants in the case until they were brought in by Holmes and the Wollenburgs.
Yervasi said he felt his client made all the right decisions in connection with the lawsuit. "I think that the attorneys for all parties involved were able to get together and resolve the case," he added.