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Wrongful death case before Georgia Supreme Court

POSTED: February 9, 2017 9:47 a.m.

An attorney for a 14-year-old who committed suicide six years ago argued before the Georgia Supreme Court Tuesday that a police officer is responsible for her death because of the officer’s action.

The attorney for Richmond Hill and that officer, however, argue that state law holds that suicide is an individual’s act and that another can be held responsible in only limited circumstances.

This case does not meet those circumstances, Pat O’Connor argued.

The state’s high court is not being asked to decide the merit of a 2013 suit brought by Laura Lane Maia against the city and RHPD Sgt. Doug Sahlberg.

The court is hearing an appeal of a decision by Bryan County Superior Court Judge Robert Russell that the case deserves a jury trial.

The city’s appeal of that decision was denied by the Georgia Court of Appeals last year and the city then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Generally, the high court takes at least two months to decide a case after oral arguments.

The original suit says Maia’s daughter, Sydney Sanders, who was 14 at the time, attempted suicide in February 2011. During the investigation, Sahlberg took photos of the child’s wounds. He later, while at home, called them up on a computer from his work files and showed them to his daughter, court papers say.

In the meantime, after the daughter had been hospitalized for a time and reportedly declared stable, she returned to school but perceived that her classmates knew about her situation and the photographs. She then took her own life on April 5, 2011.

The original suit claims Sahlberg’s actions led to her classmates knowing about her attempted suicide.

"Foreseeability is and has always been the analysis in Georgia and is built into the general rule," Carl Varnadoe, a Hinesville attorney representing Maia, argued Tuesday.

He said the girl spent nine days in a hospital after the attempted suicide. She was sent home with her doctors saying she was stable and that familiar surroundings would help her, so she was sent back to school.

"She walked into the firestorm that Sgt. Sahlberg’s match had lit," the attorney said about her going back to school.

O’Connor, whose practice is in Savannah, said there is no evidence showing that Sahlberg’s actions led to other students knowing about the victim’s attempted suicide or the photos.

Under questioning by Justice Michael Boggs, O’Connor said that if Varnadoe’s argument was accepted it would make "every police officer in Georgia the equivalent of a psychiatrist."

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