(CN) - The parents of an innocent bystander killed by bounty hunters can pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the bounty hunters' employer and two companies that allegedly acted as principal, a Missouri appeals court ruled.
Bounty hunters suffocated and killed Tamar Grant in 2002 while trying to apprehend Grant's brother, Anthony West, for ignoring a traffic ticket. Grant's parents, Emily West and William Grant, sued Sharp Bonding Agency, Bail USA and Seneca Insurance.
The three bounty hunters who killed Grant worked for Sharp Bonding, but Bail USA and Seneca convinced the trial court in Jackson County to dismiss the claims against them, as they weren't partners with Sharp Bonding or its employees.
But the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed, sending the case back to the trial court.
Judge Mark Pfieffer wrote that Seneca and Bail USA authorized Sharp Bonding to act as their bail bond agent in a 1998 contract, and they may be liable because the contract gave Seneca and Bail USA "the right to control" Sharp Bonding, even if the companies never used that right.
"Under Missouri agency law, the right to control, rather than the actual exertion of control, is sufficient to permit vicarious liability to attach," according to the ruling (emphasis in original).
Pfieffer said the claims against the companies were improperly dismissed, because the language of the contract is ambiguous.
A relationship between the companies exists because Sharp solicits and executes bail bonds solely in the name of Seneca and Bail USA, which receive 18 percent of every bail bond premium collected, according to the ruling.
"A jury could reasonably infer that Seneca/Bail USA benefitted through its exclusive relationship with Sharp Bonding and the bail bond premiums Sharp Bonding paid to Seneca/Bail USA pursuant to the bail bond agent contract," Pfieffer wrote. "Because there are competing inferences from the bail bond agent contract, it is the jury's responsibility, not the trial court's, to evaluate which inference is more credible."
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