Shooting suit against county thrown out
A federal judge in Sacramento dismissed a lawsuit Monday alleging that Nevada County violated the civil rights of mental health workers shot in the Jan. 10, 2001, attack on a county facility.
In a hearing Monday, Judge Edward J. Garcia dismissed claims that the county and several employees violated the constitutional rights of two county Department of Behavioral Health Services workers by ignoring warnings about the alleged gunman.
Monday’s hearing was on Nevada County’s motion to dismiss a federal suit filed in the Eastern District of California court.
The dismissed suit alleged that dangerous conditions were allowed to occur at Behavioral Health, violating plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment rights for equal protection under the law.
The suit was filed Jan. 9 by the parents of slain receptionist Laura Wilcox, and critically injured shooting victim Judith Edzards and her husband, Darrel.
It alleges the county ignored warnings about Scott Harlan Thorpe’s infatuation with a staff member, Thorpe’s use of marijuana in combination with psychiatric medicine, and his arsenal of weapons.
Thorpe is a former Behavioral Health client accused of the shootings that killed three and injured three. The shootings started at Behavioral Health, where Thorpe was a client, and moved to Lyon’s Restaurant.
The suit also alleges the county took no action to install bullet-resistant glass despite requests by employees in June 2001, after a client became angry and kicked down a door.
Kathleen Williams, a Sacramento attorney representing county officials named in the suit, argued no specific threats were made by Thorpe and there were no allegations that George Heitzman or Nevada County created the danger. Heitzman was Thorpe’s psychiatrist.
Williams said a defendant must have created the danger and acted with disregard to it for the 14th Amendment violation to occur.
Alan Haley, a Nevada City attorney who argued for plaintiffs, outlined the seriousness and danger present in the events leading up to Jan. 10, which put Laura Wilcox and others in the “path of danger.”
“It was a case, literally, you could claim it an accident waiting to happen,” Haley said.
Garcia declined to take up the issue of whether the county had a duty to act under state law, leaving it up to plaintiffs to decide whether to file suit in Superior Court within 30 days.
Haley said he had not yet talked with his clients about whether they would file a new case.
Steven Spiller, a Nevada City attorney for plaintiffs in the case, said he viewed Monday’s decision as another step in the case.
Plaintiffs Paul and Amanda Wilcox, parents of Laura Wilcox, were present at the hearing but declined comment afterward.
Williams said the court Monday dismissed the constitutional claim filed by plaintiffs.
“In other words, the court found my clients had not, as a matter of law, violated the plaintiffs’ civil rights,” she said.
The hearing in the Eastern District court concerned a motion by Nevada County to dismiss the case filed by the Wilcoxes and Edzardses.
The Wilcoxes and Edzardses filed suit Jan. 9 against Nevada County, George Heitzman, a former contract therapist for the county who had supervisory authority; Behavioral Health Services contractor Benjamin Lopez; Human Services Director Phyllis Murdock, director of Nevada County Human Services Agency; and Thorpe, according to court records.
A second shooting-related civil suit is still pending before Garcia. Pamela Chase and Yvonne O’Keefe filed suit Jan. 9 in Eastern District of California court against Nevada County and a handful of employees and contract workers connected with Behavioral Health, where Chase and O’Keefe worked.
That suit for damages and court action contends the county and a handful of employees created a dangerous situation and failed to protect O’Keefe and Chase, violating their civil rights for equal protection under the 14th Amendment, according to court records.
There was no action on that case Monday, other than Garcia stating that it was assigned to him from another district judge.
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