Wyoming Supreme Court Keeps Alive Casper Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Linda Lennen will get her day in court for a wrongful death lawsuit against two Casper Police officers and the City of Casper she says are responsible for negligence in the February 2018 shooting death of her son Douglas Oneyear.
The next legal actions will affect a grieving family in the short run, and long-term effects on law enforcement accountability.
The Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday denied the officers' and the city's petition to to reject a Natrona County judge’s decision in July to not dismiss Lennen's claims.
Her attorney, Todd Hambrick of Casper, said Wednesday that neither she nor Oneyear's father dislike the police, but they have endured a lot of pain.
"It's horrible," Hambrick said. "All they want is to have their day in court, (hoping) this will never happen again."
John Masterson, one of the attorneys for the city and the officers, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
The Supreme Court's one-page statement said, "After a careful review of the petition, the material attached thereto, the Submission of Supplemental Authority in Support of Petition for Writ of Review, and the file, this Court finds that the petition should be denied."
Masterson and the other attorney for Casper Hampton O'Neill said the high court needed to resolve a cloudy aspect of Wyoming law about negligence in wrongful death claims.
Hambrick said there's nothing cloudy at all, because the law about negligence is plain.
While the Wyoming U.S. District Court and the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Lennen's federal claims, Hambrick said the federal courts applied a "reckless and deliberate standard."
Lennen's lawsuit needs to be litigated in state district court because the issue of the officers' negligence is plain, he wrote.
"The standard in a state court wrongful death action is merely negligence. Negligence is defined under Wyoming law as the failure to maintain ordinary care. Ordinary care means the degree of care which would be expected of the ordinary careful person under the same or similar circumstances," Hambrick wrote in his response to the officers' and city's petition for a writ of review.
The case began in February 2018 when two Casper Police officers -- Cody Meyers and Jonathan Schlager -- shot dead Oneyear who was approaching them and wielding a toy sword on East Wyoming Boulevard, according to a recounting of the incident in the petition filed July 21.
A year later, Oneyear’s mother Linda Lennen received the authority to be his wrongful death representative.
She then sued in federal court the City of Casper, its police department and two officers, alleging the officers used excessive force, the city failed to properly train the officers, and that she was seeking a wrongful death claim against the officers. (Other initial defendants were later dismissed from the case.)
The city and officers asked Chief U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl to dismiss the lawsuit.
In June 2021, Skavdahl agreed that the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances, but he did not deal with a part of the defendants’ request regarding wrongful death claims under Wyoming state law.
Lennen appealed the decision to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in March of this year affirmed Skavdahl’s ruling.
But back in June 2021, Lennen also filed a complaint in state court asserting a claim for wrongful death.
Over the next year, the city, police department and officers filed motions to dismiss Lennen’s lawsuit, citing the federal courts’ findings that the 2,000 pages of evidence contradicted Lennen’s assertions that the officers were negligent and acted unreasonably.
But on July 6, Natrona County District Court Judge Kerry Johnson issued an order denying the motions from the city and officers to dismiss the case and kept the case alive.
"The issue of whether the officers were negligent has not been decided and therefore Plaintiffs have not had a fair and full opportunity to litigate the wrongful death claim," Johnson wrote.
In response, the city and police filed the petition for a writ of review with the Wyoming Supreme Court, saying that as a matter of law that Lennen could not use a negligence argument in a wrongful death claim because the federal courts already stated that Oneyear’s death was not caused by police negligence.
One of the criteria for filing a wrongful death claim is proof of negligence, according to the petition.
"Petitioners seek relief in the form of an order from the Court overruling the Johnson Order on the grounds that plaintiff, given the previous Federal court court findings and rulings as a matter of law cannot prove that the officers were negligent, which thus bars plaintiff's state law wrongful death claim."
The entire case raises a question about negligence, excessive force and wrongful death claims, the city and officers wrote in their petition.
That question concerns federal courts' decisions to decline to rule on non-federal state claims including state law negligence claims. Federal judges have ruled that those issues should be decided by the state courts, the petition stated.
"This is a matter of public significance because it is highly likely that this issue will occur again in the realm of Wyoming's excessive force litigation," the petition stated.
If the Supreme Court does not act on this, the petition stated more lawsuits will occur in which the state courts will carry the brunt of re-litigating these kinds of wrongful death claims.
"This would essentially duplicate the efforts made by the parties in Federal court, wasting significant resources," according to the petition. "It makes no sense to have essentially a duplicate proceeding in state district court over the exact same facts and circumstances that were adjudicated in the Skavdahl Order, and fully affirmed by the Tenth Circuit Order."
But the officers and city now must go back to the Natrona County District Court.
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