A sharply divided state appellate panel rejected the city-parish’s bid to be thrown out of a nearly seven-year-old lawsuit stemming from a shooting at the Fourth of July festivities along the Baton Rouge riverfront in 2007 that left a young woman paralyzed.
A 1st Circuit Court of Appeal panel on Tuesday denied 3-2 the city-parish’s request to overturn a lower court ruling that keeps the city-parish in the suit filed by the woman and her parents.
Kayla Smith, then 16, and a friend were leaving the annual fireworks show but were caught in an exchange of gunfire while on the Mississippi River levee near the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum.
Smith and the friend, Robert M. Blunschi Jr., then 21, were innocent bystanders but were shot. Smith suffered serious spinal cord injuries. Blunschi was shot in the head and suffered brain damage.
Though filed in July 2008, Smith’s suit has yet to go to trial but has churned in court over whether the defendants should stay in the case. The dispute so far has centered around whether the city-parish, the state and the event organizers had a duty under the law to provide a sufficient amount of security for the public.
City-parish attorneys have argued that there was ample security and lighting at the July 4, 2007, event, but that the city-parish did not have a duty to Smith to protect her from random and unforeseeable criminal acts by an unknown third party.
“That’s really what those judges said: ‘Look, there is a standard. There is a duty owed,’ ” plaintiff’s attorney Michael Palmintier said of Tuesday’s 1st Circuit ruling.
He said what will remain to be decided at trial is whether the city-parish met that standard or somehow was negligent.
City-parish attorneys have said police had 75 officers and a SWAT team on hand. But Palmintier has argued the plan was inadequate. He said Tuesday that the Fourth of July event is unique because there are so many people in such a small area near the river. He suggested the event should be treated like an athletic event where access is controlled and those with weapons are not allow inside that area.
Barring an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the 1st Circuit ruling leaves the city-parish as the only remaining defendant not an individual in the case. Smith also has sued two men she claims were firing the guns on the levee.
Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District, had refused to dismiss the state, the Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission and the Louisiana Veterans Memorial Foundation from the case, but the 1st Circuit and the Supreme Court both overruled her in 2013, finding they didn’t have a duty under the case’s circumstances.
Last year, city-parish attorneys had similarly sought to be dismissed before trial.
Clark rejected that motion, too, but this time the appellate panel’s ruling majority of Judges John Michael Guidry, Page McClendon and Toni M. Higginbotham upheld her. The judges offered no explanation in their denial of the city-parish’s appeal Tuesday.
In the Tuesday ruling, dissenting 1st Circuit Judges J. Michael McDonald and William J. Crain disputed the city-parish owed a duty to Smith or was negligent in the shooting. Both wrote they would have dismissed the city-parish from the case.
An attorney and a spokesman for the city-parish did not return phone calls and an email for comment Tuesday.
Devin Collins and Marvin Brown, both of Baton Rouge, were charged in the shootings. State District Judge Chip Moore found Collins guilty of two counts of aggravated battery in April 2009 and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Brown pleaded no contest in August 2009 to conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and Moore sentenced him to two years in prison.
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