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State high court to review wrongful death lawsuit

A key component in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Richmond Hill and one of its police officers will be heard by the Georgia Supreme Court next year.

The court announced Monday ( it would review a Georgia Court of Appeals decision from 2015 that upheld an earlier superior court ruling saying the case should be decided by a jury. The city disagreed, having asked Bryan County Superior Court Judge Robert Russell for a summary judgment on behalf of the city and RHPD Sgt. Doug Sahlberg.

The city and Sahlberg are both named in the lawsuit, filed in February 2013, which claims Sahlberg’s actions contributed to Sydney Sanders, then 14, 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 the lawsuit claims influenced her decision to take her own life.

The wrongful death suit also 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.

Attorney Ben Perkins, in a brief supporting the motion for summary judgment on behalf of the city, 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. Sahlberg’s password-protected work computer to access and disseminate the case files of the RHPD,” Perkins argued at the time. “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. The city has maintained 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 original lawsuit does not specify a monetary amount Sanders’ family 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.

The Georgia Supreme Court said it would assign the case to its February 2017 oral argument calendar, stating it was “particularly concerned” with the question “Did the Court of Appeals err, under these facts, by holding that suicide was not an intervening act that would preclude liability against a negligent tortfeasor?”

Tortfeasor is defined as “a person or entity who commits a wrongful act that injures another and for which the law provides a legal right to seek relief.”

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