Former DCP officers can't be sued for fatal crash

Published: Sep. 12, 2011 at 9:36 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2011 at 10:01 PM EDT
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The Georgia Supreme Court rules two former Dougherty County Police Officers can't be sued for their role in a fatal crash. The officers were on their way to a training event in Savannah in 2007 when one of them rear-ended a trailer.

The vehicle towing the trailer overturned and one man inside was killed. In June 2009 William Wilcox and his wife sued the officers for negligence.

A Superior Court ruled in favor of the officers and the Wilcox's appealed all the way to the Supreme Court which Monday affirmed the lower court's decision.

The fatal crash happened on April third, 2007 on Interstate 16 in Candler County. Dougherty County HEAT Officer Jeremiah Fenn rear ended a trailer towed by William Wilcox, causing his vehicle to overturn. His son Milton was ejected and killed. The Wilcox's filed a lawsuit against Fenn and Officer Oscar Gilliam and the county, but today the Supreme Court ruled the officers are immune under Georgia's Tort Claims Act. Chief Don Cheek reacted to the news.

"I'm pleased initially to say the least. Neither one of the officers is still working with our department, but it's not due to that accident," said Dougherty County Police Chief Don Cheek.

Gilliam got out of law enforcement, Fenn now works at the Marine Corps Logistics Base. Both were on their way to participate in Operation Rolling Thunder, an effort to cut Savannah's high number of traffic fatalities. Fenn claimed he was adjusting his computer before the crash. The Wilcox's claim negligence, but because the officers were driving to a work detail, their actions make them immune to lawsuits, under the Georgia Tort Claims Act.

"We're aware these situations can happen, every day when we go out and we've got a lot of things on our mind, one trying to do our job as effectively as possible, trying to do it as safely as possible," said Cheek.

Which is why officers train between 80 and 100 hours a year, but the Tort Act also protects those officers in the event an accident does happen.

"As long as they're engaged in administrable function, and they're carrying out the duties of their office, they are generally immune from suit personally," said Attorney Tommy Coleman.

The Wilcox's attorney also challenged the constitutionality of the Georgia code claiming it didn't include counties and its employees, but the justices found the legislation is extended to county employees like Gilliam and Fenn and found in favor of the officers.

The District Attorney declined to file felony charges against Fenn.

The Wilcox's also claimed the county is liable for the negligence of the police officers. That part of the lawsuit can go forward. Dougherty County's insurance provider Liberty Mutual paid the Wilcox's $250,000 for the wrongful death claim for Milton Wilcox.

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