A little boy's death nearly 5 years ago, and the wrongful death suit that followed, are raising questions about how much should be asked of individual defendants in Alabama.
Alabama has a law on the books that caps payouts by city, county, and state governments at $100,000. But the Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled the cap does not apply to individual city employees. That means a Montgomery employee could face a very expensive judgement.
The multi-year fight started one Tuesday in June of 2009 when 6-year-old Keanardrick Russell was playing hide and seek in with his cousins in his grandmother's yard. The woman's yard is adjacent to a commercial building.
Attorney Michael Strickland is representing Keandardrick's family in a lawsuit naming Montgomery city electrical inspector Wayne Morrow.
"He was going to hide behind the air conditioner, so he jumped up onto the cement pad," Strickland said. "The fence that is now lying on top of the air conditioner was rolled up, and if you could look above the air conditioner in the middle of the building, there's a little stub that is sticking out. There was an electrical box that was there and the fence post was leaning inside of it. He touched the fence and he became part of a circuit, so the electricity passed through his body."
"The building was without power for quite some time, and you have to have an inspection done before the power can be turned back on," Strickland said. "We don't think Mr. Morrow got out of his car and walked around this building."
But six months had passed between Morrow's inspection and Keandardrick's death, according to Morrow's attorney, Joe Hubbard.
"In between the inspection and the death of the boy, some copper thieves went into this enclosed fence and they pulled the top of the fence back," Hubbard said. "They pulled the wires out of a covered junction box, electrical wires, and they wrapped it around this piece of fence."
"He's worked for the city almost 20 years," Hubbard said. "Nobody has ever said that he's responsible for that boy's death."
Whether negligence or recklessness was involved in this case is still to be determined. But the Alabama Supreme court has issued this ruling - that the $100,000 pay out cap in place for municipalities does not apply to their employees named individually in lawsuits.
"The city of Montgomery is not sued, it is only the employee due to his actions," says Strickland.
Hubbard says the ruling leaves city employees unprotected.
"It's just another example of how we take for granted the hard work of our municipal and state employees," Hubbard adds. "I do believe that at the end of the day, Mr. Morrow will be vindicated."
Strickland wants someone to be held responsible. "This was a completely 100 percent preventable death."
The City of Montgomery issued a statement about the ruling saying:
"Public employees are now being placed in harm's way and must accept the risk that their individual wealth and the assets of their families are now subject to litigation. This may have a chilling effect not only on Montgomery city employees, but also on city, county, school and state employees throughout Alabama."
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