Civil Litigation, Bankruptcy, and Administrative Law

“Wrong trailer” lawsuit dismissed

As seen in the Southside Sentinel

by Tom Chillemi

A long-standing civil lawsuit against drug investigators who mistakenly kicked in the door of the wrong house trailer during a search warrant execution in 2001 near Water View was dismissed on Tuesday, July 31.

Retired Judge J. Warren Stephens ruled in Middlesex Circuit Court that attorneys for Estelle (Newcomb) Roark failed to prove “gross negligence” by agents of the Middle Peninsula Drug Task Force who kicked in the front door of her house trailer in a drug raid on what turned out to be the wrong trailer.

The case was heard, but not decided, by a jury of seven women. Instead, after all the evidence had been presented in the two-day trial, Judge Stephens granted defense attorney Sherry Fox’s motion to strike Roark’s case because her attorney had not shown “gross” negligence.

Judge Stephens said gross negligence is “utter disregard of caution” amounting to the “complete neglect of the safety” of others.

Judge Stephens said the main complaint was that the drug agents had gone into the wrong house, and that Roark “must establish their getting the wrong house was gross negligence.”

After ruling on the case, Judge Stephens explained to the jury why it was not going to decide the case. The judge told the jurors that he “struck” Roark’s case because “reasonable men could not disagree that they (Roark’s attorneys) had failed to prove gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct.”

Roark originally filed her lawsuit seeking monetary damages in 2003, claiming that on October 26, 2001, drug agents mistakenly kicked in the door of her house trailer. Roark was home with her elderly aunt on the night the incident occurred.

In April, 2010, a Middlesex Circuit Court judge sustained the drug agent’s pleas of “sovereign immunity,” but ruled the case would proceed on Roark’s claims of “gross” negligence; and willful and wanton conduct.

Judge Stephens said willful and wanton conduct is “acting in disregard of another person’s rights” or acting with a reckless indifference to the consequences to a person when the defendant is aware that the conduct “would probably result in  injury to another.”

The defendants include former Middlesex Sheriff Guy Abbott and drug agent M.E. Sampson, who still is with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office with a rank of captain. Also named as defendants were deputy drug agents Terry Davidson Jr., John Mattis and E.W. Motley III, and Matt Watson, who was a Middlesex deputy at the time.