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Training Facility May Be Liable for SEAL’s Death

(CN) - The mother of a Navy SEAL who was accidentally killed during a combat simulation may have a case for wrongful death, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled.

Sharpoor Alexander "Alex" Ghane Jr. was a special warfare operator 2 (SO2) for Navy Sea Air and Land Force (SEAL) Team Five.

The 22-year-old was fatally shot above his protective vest during a Jan. 30, 2008, live-fire training session at the Mid-South Institute of Self Defense when a bulletproof wall allegedly failed.

His mother, Narjess Ghane, sued Mid-South, property owner JFS LLC and three individuals in DeSoto County.

John Fred Shaw and Donald Ross Sanders Jr. designed the walls of the so-called shoothouse with 6-inch galvanized steel studs on each side, covered with three-eighths inches of plastic filled with limestone gravel.

Mid-South tried to throw out the case on two grounds: that Alex Ghane had signed a liablity waiver and that the claim would require the court to question military policy, thus raising a political question that could not be handled in the court.

The trial court refused the defendants summary judgment on the liability issue, but it agreed with Mid-South on the military-policy question.

On Thursday, the divided Mississippi Supreme Court revived the latter claim.

"The defendants have failed to demonstrate that adjudication of this claim will require reexamination of matters inextricable from military policy and operational decisions," Justice David Chandler wrote, joined in full by four colleagues.

"This tort action is based on the failure of the ballistic wall - a wall independently designed, constructed and maintained by the defendants," he added.

The state's highest court also affirmed the denial of Mid-South's request to dismiss the case on the basis of Alex Ghane's signing of a liability waiver.

"It is not reasonable to believe that SO2 Ghane, an experienced Navy SEAL, intended to release the defendants from following even basic safety standards in the design of the ballistic wall or the failure of the wall to perform as advertised," Chandler wrote.

"We find further merit to the plaintiff's argument that SO2 Ghane does not fall within the scope of the release because he was not a 'student' being taught or instructed by Mid-South at the time of his death, as he was under orders from the military to train at the facility," the ruling continued.

Justice Jess Dickinson mostly concurred but said summary judgment for Mid-South should have been reversed because the political-question issue is not ripe for review.

"The defendant, Mid-South, attempts to raise it on behalf of the Navy, claiming the doctrine will somehow prevent it from fully defending the claims filed against it," Dickinson wrote. "But no person from the Navy has refused to testify or respond to a subpoena."

Two joined a dissent penned by Justice Ann Lamar, which said that the SEALs did not instruct Mid-South on how to construct the walls.

Indeed, "a Navy master chief expressly instructed the range safety officer a few days before Jan. 30 not to put any SEALs behind walls that were being shot at," Lamar wrote.

"I would find that Mid-South has presented sufficient evidence to support its defense, as the SEALs' own investigation into SO2 Ghane's death concluded the SEALs bore at least some responsbility," she added.

There is no mention in the ruling as to the claims against a third individual defendant, Jim Cowan.

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