Casper, Police Appeal Officer Shooting to Wyoming Supreme Court
The City of Casper and two police officers have asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to reject a Natrona County judge’s decision to not dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit about the February 2018 police shooting of a man in east Casper.
The case is significant because petitioners say the Supreme Court needs to resolve a cloudy aspect of Wyoming law about negligence in wrongful death claims, according to the petition filed on July 21 by attorneys Hampton O'Neill and John Masterson.
But Linda Lennen, the deceased man's mother and wrongful death representative, responded on Friday that the Supreme Court should deny the case, according to her attorney Todd Hambrick.
The case began in February 2018 when two officers -- Cody Meyers and Jonathan Schlager -- shot dead a man named Douglas 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 a 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."
In his response to the petition for the writ of review, Lennen's attorney Hambrick criticized Skavdahl's reasoning for dismissing the federal lawsuit, saying he used 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.