Deputy's Widow Planning to Sue Over Courthouse Shooting
September 23, 2005
Woman seeks $10M, says 'gross negligence' led to her husband's death
Steven H. Pollak
Fulton County Daily Report
The widow of the sheriff's deputy slain during the March 11 courthouse shootings has put Fulton County and the state of Georgia on notice of her intent to file a $10 million suit, claiming the negligence of the sheriff's department, the county commission and the state government cost Sgt. Hoyt Teasley his life.
Teasley died of gunshot wounds on the morning of March 11 as he pursued an escaped inmate, 33-year-old Brian G. Nichols, out of the Fulton County Courthouse. As the two men ran out a side door onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Nichols turned and fatally shot the deputy, according to authorities.
A team of three lawyers, Pamela S. Stephenson, James E. Voyles and Lynn H. Whatley, are representing Teasley's widow, Deborah, and the couple's two minor daughters.
Voyles, one of the plaintiffs' counsel in the 1999 race discrimination case against The Coca-Cola Co. that resulted in a $192 million settlement, said the Teasley case will have challenges.
"Obviously, governmental immunity is an issue we'll have to overcome," he said during a brief interview. "I don't see it as impossible."
As required by statute, the attorneys announced their intention to file a wrongful-death action by sending ante litem notices to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, the Fulton County Sheriff's Department and the state's Department of Administrative Services. No suit has been filed.
The Fulton County attorney, Overtis Hicks Brantley, wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Report that the notice does not state a legal basis for recovery, and therefore the county would not offer to settle.
"Hopefully, upon a more complete review of the law governing the issues of the case, the attorneys will decide that a lawsuit is not likely to be successful," Brantley wrote. "However, all members of the Fulton County family remain saddened that Deputy Teasley was killed."
Daryl Robinson, a spokesman for state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, said the AG's office had not yet received a copy of the notice, and therefore he could not comment on it.
ACCUSED OF GROSS NEGLIGENCE
The notice asserts that Teasley died as a result of the government entities' "gross negligence, willful and wanton negligence, failure to provide a safe working environment and lack of care."
On the morning of March 11, a lone deputy, Cynthia A. Hall, escorted Nichols to a holding cell where he was supposed to change into street clothes in preparation for the fourth day of his trial for rape and other charges. According to an investigation into the shootings, deputies already had identified Nichols as a possible danger because he had tried to hide two pieces of metal in his shoes.
Authorities say Nichols assaulted Hall, took her gun and then made his way to the chambers of Fulton Superior Court Judge Rowland W. Barnes. From there, Nichols allegedly went into the courtroom and shot to death the judge and his court reporter, Julie A. Brandau.
After escaping from downtown, authorities believe Nichols went on to kill a federal agent, David Wilhelm, later that evening in Buckhead.
Nichols has pleaded not guilty to the murders and other charges. The state is seeking the death penalty.
"Security lapses by the Fulton County Sheriff's Department, some years in the making, facilitated Nichols at every turn," the widow's lawyers wrote in the notice.
Those missteps included, the attorneys claimed, "a sick day for a deputy who may not have been sick, a breakfast run by a deputy, a delayed response to an emergency call and a failure to close off fire exits."
As a result of an internal affairs investigation, Sheriff Myron Freeman fired eight deputies and disciplined five others. Some are appealing their dismissals, including former Deputy Paul K. Tamer, who is accused of missing radio traffic and alarms as the violence unfolded. Tamer has denied any wrongdoing.
The notice adds that sheriff's department procedures call for deputies to secure emergency exits during an escape attempt. On March 11, courthouse guards instead began to evacuate the buildings when they heard about the shootings, the notice states.
"The department provided inadequate, if any, training on a lockdown procedure during emergencies," according to the notice.
The lawyers say Nichols' success reflected "long-standing" problems in the county and the sheriff's department, including a lack of funding, widespread absenteeism, a disregard for physical fitness and poor emergency preparedness.
'A MINEFIELD OF IMMUNITY'
Brantley told the Daily Report she had not received any other notices related to the March 11 shootings.
But Thomas W. Malone, who represents Claudia Barnes, the judge's widow, said a final draft of a complaint is near completion for his client's case. He expects to send notice to Fulton soon.
"I'm confident that we have an excellent case, and in the end immunity concerns will not thwart the ends of justice," said Malone.
Malone called the case "a minefield of immunity." But he plans to get around the issue by suing individual Fulton employees who violated their "clear ministerial duties."
"There is no immunity that protects individuals for failing to follow the dictates of clear policy," he said. "This is a cascade of violations of ministerial duty on the part of many."
Jeffrey R. Harris of Scherffius, Ballard, Still & Ayres, one of the lawyers representing the estate of the slain court reporter, previously told the Daily Report that a complaint would be filed soon in that case.
Immunity has been a cumbersome obstacle for plaintiffs suing the government, said Manubir S. Arora of Garland, Samuel & Loeb. Courts have not been inclined to waive that right, he said.
"The standards of immunity are very hard to overcome," said Arora, who represents Tamer, one of the fired deputies. "It's not just a simple negligence type situation. … It's gotta be way beyond negligence."
Last month Brantley, the county attorney, said Fulton had a remote risk of being held liable for the courthouse shootings. She explained that other than workers' compensation claims, the county is immune from suits saying it was responsible for the shooting deaths.
Plaintiffs lawyers would have to prove how the county caused the deaths when, Brantley argued, "Brian Nichols killed the people."