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Negligence claim vs. deputies revived in courthouse shootings
Survivors of the 2005 Fulton County Courthouse shootings have made a sufficiently strong case to revive their lawsuit alleging negligence by security officers, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled this week.
The plaintiffs, both employees of Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, contend Fulton County sheriff’s deputies:
- Did little or nothing to step up security when inmate Brian Nichols threatened to overpower a guard and take his weapon, or when Nichols was subsequently caught trying to smuggle a homemade knife through courthouse security.
- Left the security unit shortstaffed when one misused sick leave on the morning of the shootings and others left for breakfast.
- Were gone when the plaintiffs triggered a silent alarm from Barnes’ chambers, and failed to respond immediately when they got back from the breakfast run.
Plaintiffs Susan Christy and Gina Clarke allege they suffered emotional injuries from being held at gunpoint by Nichols shortly before he burst into the courtroom and gunned down Barnes and a court reporter. A DeKalb County judge, ruling Christy and Clarke had not proven the deputies’ negligence was aimed at them, dismissed their claim in December 2008.
The appellate court’s ruling, issued Monday, said Christy and Clarke might be able to prove the negligence was directed specifically at them:
Taking the facts in the complaint as true, the defendants either (1) were aware of a specific threat to the employees of Barnes’s chambers based on Nichols’s statements, (2) were aware that a weapon was confiscated from Nichols during the course of his trial in that courtroom, or (3) failed to man Central Control, which was responsible for overseeing security in that courtroom, and/or to respond to distress calls made to Central Control.
Moreover, the court held that:
[T]he Appellants argue that the trial court erred by dismissing their claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and assault. The defendants contend that, as a matter of law, they cannot be held vicariously liable for these intentional torts, which were committed by Nichols, while the Appellants maintain that they have sufficiently alleged facts to establish that the defendants’ negligence was the proximate cause of these torts. We agree with the Appellants and reverse the trial court’s order with regard to these claims. …
As the defendants correctly state, most Georgia cases addressing this area have concluded that a jailer’s negligence is not the proximate cause of a bystander’s injury when committed by an escaped prisoner. Nevertheless, those cases do not involve allegations such as those presented in this complaint, which include known threats made by a prisoner. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s dismissal of these claims because, at this stage of the proceedings, the Appellants have alleged sufficient facts that, if proven, could sustain a finding that the foreseeable result of the defendants’ negligence was Nichols’s violence against Judge Barnes and his staff.
Both Barnes and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau died at the scene from their injuries. Nichols also shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy as he fed the building on March 11, 2005, and a federal immigration agent later that day. Nichols is currently serving life without the possibility of parole in a Georgia prison.
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