TACOMA, Wash. — A jury has found that Washington state officials were partially responsible for the deaths of missing Utah woman Susan Cox Powell’s children at the hands of their father.
Jurors on Friday awarded more than $98 million to the estates of Charlie and Braden Powell, the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma reported.
Josh Powell, who lived in West Valley City before moving to Pierce County, Washington, was a suspect in the disappearance and murder of his wife in 2009. Her body has never been found. On Feb. 5, 2012, he killed their two young sons, Charlie and Braden, and himself in an explosive house fire. The boys were visiting Josh Powell at his home on a supervised visit with a social worker when they were killed; Powell had locked the social worker outside.
Susan Powell’s parents, Judith and Charles Cox, alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services did not do enough to keep their 7- and 5-year-old grandsons safe. The Coxes were in a custody fight for the boys when Josh Powell killed them.
The trial started in Pierce County Superior Court in February and was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurors had begun deliberating Thursday.
The jury awarded $57 million for the pain and suffering of each boy, and held their father, Josh Powell, liable for $8.245 million for each child. The final award to the Cox family is just over $98 million.
Charles Cox, the boy’s grandfather said in a statement: “Nothing can bring back the boys, but this is the end of a nightmare, and it’s gratifying to hear a jury tell the state they were wrong, and to award a verdict that will force them to change the culture at DHS to make sure this doesn’t happen to other children in the future.”
Attorney Anne Bremner, who represents the Cox family, said, “We faced so many legal obstacles to get to trial, and then the extraordinary circumstances of trying the case in the midst of a pandemic, we are so gratified by the jury’s verdict and their commitment to justice.”
Ted Buck, another attorney for the Coxes, argued during closing arguments on Wednesday that state workers weren’t properly trained on policy regarding parental visits in domestic violence situations.
He said “none of this would have happened” had state policies and common sense been followed, pointing to a social worker who recognized Josh Powell as an abduction risk without informing the judge overseeing the custody dispute.
Assistant attorney general Joseph Diaz said in his closing argument the boys’ deaths were unquestionably tragic, but that experienced state workers took the custody matter very seriously. He said the department tried “to do what’s best for both those boys, at the same time recognizing that Mr. Powell had rights.”
“Mr. Powell is the sole cause of the murder of his sons,” Diaz told the jury. “There was not any negligence by the state of Washington.”
Josh Powell had moved to Puyallup, to his father Steven’s home, with the boys following his wife’s disappearance in December 2009 from their West Valley home. But investigators looking for clues to her whereabouts searched that house and found child pornography, including images that Steven Powell had secretly recorded of neighbor girls.
The boys were then removed from the home and placed with the Coxes. Josh Powell moved to a house in Graham. When the boys arrived for the visit with the social worker, he locked the social worker out, attacked the boys with a hatchet and then blew up the home with the three of them inside.
Just days earlier, a judge had ordered Powell’s two young sons to remain in the custody of the Cox family and for Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation to determine his custodial fitness.