Kent Denny’s shooting culminates in $79.5 mil lawsuit

A 2007 shooting at Denny’s Restaurant in Kent is culminating in a $79.5 million lawsuit and the subpoenaing of the company’s top brass to a Seattle courtroom. In the trial, which starts Monday, Seattle attorney Ron Perey is representing Steve Tolenoa, a Kent resident who was left a quadriplegic as a result of the Jan. 21 shooting spree. In addition to the $79 million for Tolenoa’s estimated loss in pay and continued medical needs, Perey also is seeking $530,000 in damages for customer Lisa Beltran-Walker, who was shot in the knee, and her husband Carl Walker, for emotional distress and medical bills.

(Editor's note: Please click here to read Denny's side of this lawsuit.)

A 2007 shooting at Denny’s Restaurant in Kent is culminating in a $79.5 million lawsuit and the subpoenaing of the company’s top brass to a Seattle courtroom.

In the trial, which starts Monday, Seattle attorney Ron Perey is representing Steve Tolenoa, a Kent resident who was left a quadriplegic as a result of the Jan. 21 shooting spree. In addition to the $79 million for Tolenoa’s estimated loss in pay and continued medical needs, Perey also is seeking $530,000 in damages for customer Lisa Beltran-Walker, who was shot in the knee, and her husband Carl Walker, for emotional distress and medical bills.

“His life ended on Jan. 21, 2007,” Perey said of Tolenoa, 31, who now lives in an assisted-care facility in Auburn, confined to a wheelchair and a bed.

The culprit, Perey asserts in his suit, was not just Frank Evans, a gang wannabe who shot off 11 rounds after fighting with another customer. The issue, he claims, is Denny’s awareness that its 24-7 hours are bringing in rough crowds to its stores across the nation, but not doing enough to protect customers and employees.

“Denny’s has a problem with its bar rush,” Perey said in a phone interview Tuesday. “They knew they had a problem – they tracked it. They had the numbers, but they didn’t do anything about it.

“We’ve interviewed many employees who didn’t want to work there during the late-night bar rush, because of the risk of injury, or was it going to escalate into something bad,” Perey said, noting the term “bar rush” refers to the 1-5 a.m. time period when the bars empty out and partiers are looking for somewhere else to go.

Among those expected to testify are Denny’s top corporate officials: Deborah Smithart-Oglesby, chairman of the board of directors for Denny’s and the company’s president and CEO, and F. Mark Wolfinger, Denny’s chief financial officer.

The case will have as its starting point the Kent Denny’s shooting, but is anticipated to broaden to encompass the practices of the national chain.

In the case of the Kent Denny’s – which the national company owned in 2007, but which is now owned by another company that is not part of the lawsuit – Tolenoa had gone there at 2 a.m. for a Grand Slam breakfast with his brother Wilven. The two were winding down from a softball game the evening previous.

Meanwhile, Evans came in with another group of people, rowdy after drinking at another restaurant, and having been thrown out by security there. Now at Denny’s, Evans picked a fight with a customer, who beat him up. Evans left the restaurant, then minutes later returned with a Glock .40 semiautomatic handgun, which he used to spray the inside of the restaurant with 11 bullets. He fled, and customers and staff frantically called 911.

Tolenoa, a Bible-college graduate who didn’t know Evans and had nothing to do with the earlier fracas, was hit twice in the back by flying bullets.

The event was filmed by security cameras in the restaurant.

Evans was arrested, and later convicted on multiple counts of first-degree assault. He’s now serving a 62-year prison sentence in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.

But the problem for Denny’s, Perey asserts in his suit, started long before the gun went off. Employees at the Kent restaurant, his suit claims, had indicated to management their unease with the roughness of the bar rush. “They had asked for off-duty police during the bar rush, but nothing was done,” Perey wrote in his trial brief, which is filed in King County Superior Court.

Perey’s brief claims that is why Denny’s is liable: “If off-duty Kent Police officers, or private security were hired; or if the restaurant was closed during the bar rush; or even a strong, well-trained manager/authority figure manager was on duty, Evans would never been allowed into the restaurant-seating areas, would have been deterred from engaging in the fight, and would have been deterred from returning to the restaurant with a gun and from shooting the gun.”

The Kent Denny’s shooting is one instance of a bigger problem for the 24-7 national Denny’s chain, the lawsuit claims.

“I can tell you it’s around the country, every weekend and always during the bar-rush time of 12 (midnight) to 5,” Perey said, adding he’s devoted several years to documenting cases of Denny’s violence around the country, including interviews and depositions within the Denny’s structure from employees to executives.

The lawsuit also claims that Denny’s has a 92-page printout of more than 3,000 workplace violence incidents at its eateries, from January 2004 to January 2007, including 63 incidents at its restaurants in Washington, and six at the Kent Denny’s.

“This list is undoubtedly incomplete,” because more local incidents were uncovered by searching Kent Police records, media reports and managers’ logs, a passage from the trial brief reads.

Perey claims the restaurant chain sees a substantial part of its profits – about 25 percent – due to the late-night hours. He claims the company would lose about $18 million per year in revenues, if it closed during bar-rush time.

The trial will take place in the King County Superior Courtroom of Judge Laura Middaugh in downtown Seattle. It’s anticipated to last between three and four weeks.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@kentnews.us.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://kentnews.us/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

t
Kent firefighters extinguish three separate brush fires on West Hill

Fire breaks out early Friday morning, July 12 in wooded area west of Interstate 5

t
Kent's Project Feast receives $10,000 grant from Jacques Pépin Foundation

Nonprofit offers culinary skills training program for immigrants and refugees

t
Valley SWAT helps arrest Kent man in domestic violence incident

Saturday, July 6 at a West Hill apartment complex

t
Kent Police Blotter: June 26 to July 6

Incidents include shootings, robberies, pursuits

t
Man busted for drugs in Kent receives eight-year prison sentence

Part of drug trafficking ring that brought hundreds of pounds of narcotics to Western Washington

Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. FILE PHOTO
Judge denies bail reduction, release for man accused of shooting trooper in Kent

Bail remains at $3 million; defense attorney wanted release for drug treatment program

t
King County awards $1.2 million grant to Kent for salmon restoration

Money will be used for projects along the Green River

t
Dragon boat races no longer part of Kent Cornucopia Days

Lack of volunteers, resources leads to dropping of event first featured in 2001

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D) represents the 9th Congressional District, which includes multiple cities in King County. File photo
Congressman Smith weighs in on Supreme Court and Biden

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D) represents Renton, Mercer Island, Tukwila, Des Moines, Federal Way and parts of Seattle, Bellevue, Kent and Auburn.

t
Register for National Night Out event in Kent coming up Aug. 6

Organize neighborhood or community event to help get to know neighbors and prevent crime

t
Kent Police seek $2.25 million mobile command vehicle for major incidents

City applies for federal grant to pay for vehicle to respond to active shooter, mass casualty events

t
Portion of Reith Road in Kent to close for roundabout construction

Detours to be set up during July 9 to Sept. 1 closure at Lake Fenwick Road and South 253rd Street