A wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Richmond Hill and one of its police officers could go to a jury trial, but a judge’s ruling in the case will be appealed first.
At a May 20 hearing in Bryan County Superior Court, Judge Robert Russell denied a motion for summary judgment filed by attorney Ben Perkins for 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 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, according to the lawsuit, led to the photos being shown to Sanders’ classmates, which influenced Sanders’ decision to take her own life.
Perkins outlined in the hearing why he believes the charges do not hold up under the law, but Russell denied the summary-judgment motion on the grounds that the case has enough issues of fact for a jury to decide.
“We have tremendous respect for Judge Russell, but we respectfully disagree because we feel we pointed out the absence of official elements of each claim that is alleged,” Perkins said afterward.
The defendants will appeal Russell’s ruling to the Georgia Court of Appeals, Perkins said. If that appeal is denied, the case will go to a jury.
Attorney Carl Varnedoe, who represents Sanders’ mother, Laura Lane Maia, declined to comment following the ruling.
The wrongful-death suit, which was filed in September, 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 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.
A mentor who spoke with the teenager testified that “Miss Sanders expressed a desire to commit suicide for a wide array of reasons: ‘everyone is disappointed in me’; ‘my mom’s disappointed in me’; ‘the girls are always talking about me’; ‘I lied to you’; issues with her boyfriend; issues with her sister; and issues with her mother.”
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.