On September 9, 2020, the law firm Cohen Milstein filed a lawsuit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against Anne Sacoolas, a United States citizen and wife of U.S. diplomat Jonathan Sacoolas, for her part in the wrongful death of Harry Dunn. The suit also names Jonathan Sacoolas as a defendant for vicarious liability for the conduct, actions, errors, or omissions committed by his wife.
The suit was filed on behalf of Harry Dunn’s family, including his parents Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, and his twin brother Niall. The lawsuit claims wrongful death of Dunn and seeks financial damages. According to the plaintiffs, Sacoolas’ unsafe driving led to a head on vehicular collision with Harry Dunn in 2019. The collision caused catastrophic injuries, including several fractures. The suit states that Ms. Sacoolas’ subsequent failure to call for an ambulance led to additional pain and suffering on the part of Harry Dunn, ultimately leading to his death.
On August 27, 2019, Anne Sacoolas was driving her SUV on the wrong side of the road near Croughton, Northamptonshire, England when she hit 19-year-old Harry Dunn on his motorcycle. The SUV that Sacoolas was driving was owned by her husband Jonathan Sacoolas, who was working for the U.S. government at a Royal Air Force base in Croughton at the time.
Dunn had several open fractures on his extremities and internal bleeding. Although Sacoolas had her cellphone on her, she did not call an ambulance after the accident. Instead, a passerby approached the scene of the accident and called emergency services. When paramedics arrived, Dunn was conscious, breathing, and able to speak with them. He was able to tell the them that Sacoolas had been driving on the wrong side of the road and that she hit him with her SUV. Dunn died shortly after arriving at the hospital as a result of his injuries.
According to the complaint Cohen Milstein filed on behalf of the Dunn family, Sacoolas confessed that the accident was her fault and promised to cooperate with local authorities. However, she returned to the Unites States with her husband around September 15, 2019 without informing local authorities of her departure. She asserted diplomatic immunity as the reason for her return.
The British Crown Prosecution Service charged Sacoolas with causing Dunn’s death by dangerous driving, but she has refused to return to the United Kingdom for a trial. When the United Kingdom requested that she be extradited to Britain, the United States refused to comply.
Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles accepted an invitation by President Trump to meet him at the White House on October 15, 2019. The parents refused to meet Ms. Sacoolas, who was waiting in another room, instead repeating their wish to meet with her in the UK. Charles said she “initially” thought the meeting was being held to sweep her son’s death under the rug.
The United States and the United Kingdom
The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom have been in contact with one another to discuss the handling of the case. As a result of the Dunn family’s lobbying, the loophole that allowed family members of Americans serving at the RAF base to claim diplomatic immunity was closed in July 2020. Closing the loophole ensures that if a similar accident were to occur again, a spouse of a diplomat at the base would not be immune from British prosecution.
“Since the tragic accident occurred, the United States has been closely engaged with the UK government, and we have been transparent about our positions on legal and diplomatic matters concerning this accident,” a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday. “The United States Government again expresses its profound condolences and sympathy to the Dunn family for the loss of their son.”
Radd Seiger, an adviser to the Dunn family, said the British foreign secretary will file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the lawsuit brought by Cohen Milstein on behalf of the Dunn family, a move Seiger called “extraordinary.”
Julie Ross, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the plaintiffs in such cases could argue that a Virginia court has jurisdiction because the defendant resides there. However, Ross noted that several preliminary issues would need to be decided before the case went forward. One possible complication is that Sacoolas’s attorney could argue for dismissal due to forum non conveniens. Forum non conveniens allows a court to dismiss a case when another court, or forum, is better suited to hear the case. Sacoolas’s lawyer could argue for the case filed in Virginia to be thrown out, because the evidence and witnesses are in Britain.
Ross stated, “A lot of it depends on how much evidence is really needed to prove a wrongful-death case and how difficult or easy it is to take that evidence in the U.S. rather than pursue the case in the U.K..”
The filing of a civil suit in Virginia and charges by the Crown Prosecutor show that, even though the U.S. has asserted diplomatic immunity, the case will not go away.
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