British family whose son was killed in crash files US lawsuit against wife of American official
By WILLIAM BOOTH AND KARLA ADAM | The Washington Post | Published: September 9, 2020
LONDON — The family of Harry Dunn, the 19-year-old motorcyclist killed by a car driven on the wrong side of an English roadway by the wife of a U.S. official, filed a U.S. federal lawsuit against the driver, Anne Sacoolas, on Wednesday.
The lawsuit, which claims wrongful death and seeks financial damages, represents a significant escalation in the year-long campaign by Dunn's parents to hold Sacoolas accountable.
The case has been a source of friction between British and American officials. Sacoolas left Britain shortly after the Aug. 27, 2019, accident, with the U.S. government asserting that she had diplomatic immunity.
She returned to her home in Northern Virginia. But in December, British police charged her with causing death by dangerous driving.
A British request for extradition was rejected by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed "disappointment." In a meeting with Pompeo in July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson "reiterated the need for justice to be done for Harry Dunn and his family," according to a spokesman for 10 Downing Street.
Dunn's parents, Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in October 2019, weeks after the accident. The couple said Trump tried to get them to meet with Sacoolas, who he said was in an adjacent room. Tim Dunn said they felt uncomfortable and thought the president was trying to bring them closure - and himself a photo op.
The driver's husband, Jonathan Sacoolas, is named as a co-defendant in the U.S. civil suit, as the Dunn family attorneys say the vehicle driven in the accident, a Volvo SUV, was owned by him.
Jonathan Sacoolas, who had diplomatic status in Britain, was working for the U.S. government at a Royal Air Force base in Croughton, which is used by American intelligence agencies.
In the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Virginia, the attorneys for Dunn's parents assert that Sacoolas did not call an ambulance or police after the head-on collision, although she had a cellphone with her. A passerby called the emergency service.
The force of the collision left "blood and clothing embedded in the front windshield," the lawsuit states. "She left Harry to suffer as he lay face down on the side of the road, afraid of dying, fully conscious with multiple broken bones, including open fractures on both legs and both arms, and internal injuries."
Sacoolas remained at the scene. An ambulance took 43 minutes to appear, according to police, because call handlers mischaracterized the extent of Dunn's injuries. He died soon after reaching a hospital in nearby Oxford.
Two lawyers representing Anne Sacoolas did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last month, a State Department spokeswoman said, "we have worked closely with our U.K. counterparts to find a mutually acceptable path forward. We continue to engage with them to find a reasonable resolution."
Also Wednesday, Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn met with public prosecutors in London, who have signaled that they might consider proceeding with a criminal trial against Sacoolas - in absentia or "virtually."
The diplomatic immunity that was claimed for Anne Sacoolas had been granted to family members of Americans serving at the RAF base. As a result of the Dunn family's lobbying, the loophole was closed in July, by agreement between London and Washington. If a similar accident were to occur today, a spouse of a diplomat at the base would not be immune from British prosecution.
Police say Sacoolas admitted that she was driving on the wrong side of the road. In Britain, vehicles drive on the left-hand side.
There is no evidence that Sacoolas was impaired or speeding. If a British court found her guilty of dangerous driving resulting in death, sentencing guidelines recommend two to five years in jail.
Dunn's parents say that they continue to grieve - and that the flight of Sacoolas to the United States under the protection of diplomatic immunity was deeply unfair.
In an interview in August with The Post, Charles said of Anne Sacoolas: "She's a mum of three. I've never been able to understand the fact that she is not setting a good example to those children whatsoever.
"It doesn't matter what country or who it was that has taken the life of someone's loved one. Justice still needs to be done," she said.
Radd Seiger, an adviser to the Dunn family, said Wednesday: "The parents wanted none of this. They have worked hard to avoid this. Mrs. Sacoolas and her advisers clearly do not consider the further misery this imposes on Harry's family."
Seiger said the British foreign secretary will file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the lawsuit, a move he called "extraordinary."
Theodore Leopold, a lawyer representing the Dunn family, said the lawsuit must proceed in Virginia because that is where Sacoolas now resides. He said it was possible to bring witnesses from England to Virginia to testify - or to offer their testimony via remote video links or recorded depositions.
As for the amount of money sought by the Dunn family, Leopold said, "That will be up to the jury." Asked whether the case could be settled, he said, "We're always ready to listen in good faith."
Legal analysts said the two sides would battle to see whether the civil case ever went to trial.
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.
"The jurisdiction wouldn't be a problem," she said. "There is no reason why you couldn't proceed on the basis of jurisdiction because the defendant is there."
But several other preliminary issues would need to be decided before the case went forward, and these could lead the judge to dismiss the case, Ross said.
She said Sacoolas's attorneys could argue for dismissal because the evidence and witnesses are in Britain - meaning that a U.S. court is not the "appropriate forum."
"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.," she said.
"There could be a whole bunch of moves" on both sides, Ross said.