(CN) – The Memphis Housing Authority must face a wrongful-death suit over the murder of a tenant by another resident with known violent propensities, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled.
Charles Cornelius Brown was killed in 2002 by a stray bullet fired by L.C. Miller, who was shooting toward the housing authority’s security office. Both men lived in the same housing project operated by the agency.
Brown’s family sued the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) for negligence and breach of lease, claiming it should have investigated Miller’s criminal background or assessed the risk he posed to other tenants.
The state’s high court ruled on this case before. Earlier in the proceedings, the justices reversed a summary judgment that said the MHA owed no duty to the plaintiffs or to Brown with respect to Miller’s criminal actions.
Brown’s family says the authority should have evicted Miller after he committed aggravated assault against a tenant in 1998. Despite a “one-strike policy,” the authority allegedly placed Miller on probation for a year.
The MHA claims that federal law pre-empted the negligence claim, but a Shelby County judge refused to grant summary judgment. The court also declined to find that MHA had immunity under the discretionary function exception to Tennessee tort law.
After an appellate panel concluded that federal law did pre-empt the negligence claims, and that the MHA did have immunity, Brown’s survivors brought the case back to the state Supreme Court.
On Monday, the court again sided against the housing authority.
“Allowing the negligence claim to stand promotes safe public housing for tenants by providing a remedy when a public housing authority exercises its federally vested discretion in a negligent manner,” Justice Janice Holder wrote for the court.
“The plaintiff’s claim will impose liability on MHA only if the trial court determines that under the facts in this case, MHA was negligent in failing to evict Mr. Miller in 1998,” she added.
The court also disagreed that the authority has immunity.
“We further conclude that MHA’s decision not to evict Mr. Miller was an operational decision and is not entitled to discretionary function immunity under the GTLA,” Holder wrote, abbreviating the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.