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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Employers On the Hook for Navy Yard Massacre

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge ruled that two companies that hired the D.C. Navy Yard shooter cannot dodge negligent retention and supervision claims brought by the victims' families.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer denied a request to revise an earlier ruling, in a 12-page opinion on a motion for reconsideration and interlocutory appeal from defendants Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services LLC and its subcontractor, The Experts Inc.

The earlier ruling, filed in September of this year, found that the companies may have acted negligently by not addressing signs of mental illness in their employee Aaron Alexis, a computer tech who shot and killed 12 people and injured four others on Sept. 16, 2013, at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard.

HP asked for the reconsideration, arguing that "the 'heightened foreseeability' standard applied by D.C. courts for evaluating liability for an intervening crime by a third person, does not apply to allegations of negligent retention and supervision resulting in a crime by a third person."

The company claimed that "the opinion's conclusion...relies on the mistaken assertion that HP did not contest plaintiff's allegations with respect to the events of August 2013."

Complaints filed last year by victims' families allege that the employers were privy to a litany of red flags indicating Alexis was dangerous, just a month before the shooting.

The families also claim that, before Alexis smuggled a shotgun onto the Navy Yard, there were telltale signs of increasing paranoia and mental instability.

During a business trip a month before the shooting, Alexis is said to have contacted a project coordinator at The Experts saying that a man was making fun of him at the airport.

On the same trip, Alexis contacted The Expert's project coordinator again, this time requesting that he be moved from his hotel due to noise, according to the families' complaints.

Once moved, he allegedly contacted the coordinator again, saying that there were people talking about him in an adjacent room and that they were using an ultrasonic device to keep him awake and pinned to his bed.

After the coordinator became concerned and called police to check on Alexis' hotel room, they found a disturbing scene, according to court records. Alexis had allegedly dismantled his bed in hopes of finding someone hiding underneath it, and taped a microphone to the ceiling to record voices of people in the next room.

Alexis later asked to stay in a supervisor's room because he thought he was being followed, according to the complaints, and asked her if she could hear the voices he was hearing. She said she could not.

Judge Collyer's latest ruling found that communications between HP and The Experts about a possible threat posed by Alexis remain unclear, and limited discovery is warranted for contacts between the companies.

The interlocutory appeal was initiated by HP after the company took issue with a footnote contained in the September opinion.

The footnote stated that "neither HPES nor the Experts contest the sufficiency of the allegations with respect to what they knew or should have known about the series of events in August 2013."

HP claimed that it "itemized the plaintiff's allegations about what [it] knew about Mr. Alexis prior to the shooting...in its motion to dismiss."

Collyer agreed to strike the footnote from the prior opinion, but made clear that "HP's argument does not support reconsideration of the court's underlying legal assessment of the motion to dismiss," and therefore the judge declined to modify the September opinion's conclusion.

"When strange incidents could give rise to an inference that an employee behaved in a 'dangerous or otherwise incompetent matter,' and supervisors had specific knowledge of those incidents, and there were discussions between supervisors and managers about those incidents, it cannot be determined on a motion to dismiss whether [HP] knew or should have known all the facts developed by The Experts," the judge wrote. "[HP] has given the court no reason to disturb its original ruling in this regard."

A representative from HP or The Experts could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The plaintiffs in the case are Patricia Delorenzo, John Edward Proctor, Priscilla A. Halmon-Daniels, Michelle Kohler, Tracey Ridgell, Erin Zagami, Jane Mae McCullough, Jennifer Jacobs and James B. Frasier.

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