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Appeal filed in wrongful-death lawsuit

A wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Richmond Hill and one of its police officers is now headed to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Attorney Ben Perkins filed an appeal Friday in Bryan County Superior Court of Judge Robert Russell’s denial last month of a summary-judgment motion on behalf of the city and Richmond Hill Police Department Sgt. Doug Sahlberg.

The city and Sahlberg are both named in the lawsuit, which claims the police officer’s actions contributed to 14-year-old Sydney Sanders committing suicide on April 5, 2011.

Sahlberg has acknowledged that he showed his daughter photographs of injuries Sanders inflicted on herself during a suicide attempt in February 2011. That led to the photos being shown to Sanders’ classmates, which influenced her decision to take her own life, according to the lawsuit.

Perkins outlined at a May 20 hearing why he believes the charges do not hold up under the law, but Russell denied the motion for summary judgment. Perkins could not file the appeal until Russell submitted his written order of denial, which the judge did on June 15.

The Court of Appeals can make a ruling in the case or send it to a jury. Either way, Perkins said he anticipates the process taking several months.

Perkins said Friday that he expects the appellate court to make a ruling in the city’s favor.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia Supreme Court have held that cities and police officers sued in their official capacities can’t be sued for punitive damages since doing so violates public policy,” he said. “Judge Russell’s ruling to the contrary is likely to get the Court of Appeals’ attention.”

Attorney Carl Varnedoe, who represents Sanders’ mother, Laura Lane Maia, declined comment Monday on the appeal being filed.

The wrongful-death suit states that Sahlberg violated Richmond Hill Police Department policy by showing his daughter confidential photos of Sanders’ injuries from her attempted suicide on Feb. 14, 2011.

The suit goes on to claim that Sahblerg’s supervisor, Lt. Dana Strickland, was notified that Sahlberg’s daughter “had told others, including without limitation to, Sydney L. Sanders’ classmates” about the photographs.

“Defendant Sahlberg knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that publication of the confidential photographs of Sydney L. Sanders’ person created a reasonable apprehension that Sydney L. Sanders would further harm herself,” the lawsuit states.

Perkins’ brief supporting the motion for summary judgment pointed to Sahlberg’s testimony in his affidavit that that he simply showed the photographs to his daughter Katelyn on his computer screen.

“There is no evidence that he printed the photographs, there is no evidence that he provided copies of them to Katelyn, there is no evidence that Katelyn stole them, and there is no evidence that Katelyn had previously logged onto Sgt. Salhberg’s password-protected work computer to access and disseminate the case files of the RHPD,” Perkins said. “There is no proximate connection between Sgt. Sahlberg’s displaying the photographs to his daughter and Miss Sanders’ suicide.”

According to previous testimony, Sanders was visibly upset and threatened to commit suicide just hours before taking her own life on April 5, 2011. However, Perkins contends it had nothing to do with any actions by Sahlberg or his daughter.

The RHPD did not suspend Sahlberg for showing the photos to his daughter. Instead, he was punished with an official reprimand and the loss of 16 hours of vacation time.

The lawsuit does not specify a monetary amount Maia is seeking. The requests listed are a jury trial; damages for the full value of Sanders’ life; damages for “all elements of pain and suffering, both mental and physical,” endured by Sanders; damages for medical and funeral expenses; damages for the defendants’ infliction of emotional distress; and punitive damages in accordance with the law.

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