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Family seeks justice after death at landfill page 2
A Stafford woman whose husband died at the regional landfill is looking for justice

 Renee Knippel wraps her arms around daughter Ellie, who was there when her dad suffered a deadly fall in 2007.
PETER CIHELKA/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 7/2/2010

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Renee Knippel was shocked at the lack of railings around the unloading area at the time. Her husband was a veteran--a member of the Ordinance Disposal Unit--who had survived multiple tours in Vietnam.

"And what takes him out," she said. "The incompetence of local government."

The landfill is a joint venture between Stafford County and the city of Fredericksburg, and is run by the semi-autonomous Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Management Board.

In Renee Knippel's mind, her husband's death was the result of negligence of all three entities. If the R-Board were a private company, a lawsuit would probably have been expected. But Renee Knippel could not find a lawyer who would take her case.

Wherever she turned, she ran into the same roadblock--sovereign immunity, which limits lawsuits against government.

Knippel ended up having to represent herself in Stafford Circuit Court and filed her case in December 2007. The court later ruled in favor of the local governments on all three counts of negligence, wrongful death and punitive damages, citing sovereign immunity in each case.

Her window for appeal is closed, and she has given up on the legal system without receiving any financial settlement or substantially improving safety at the landfill.

"I realize what rights I do and don't have," she said. "But that doesn't make it any easier."

LEGALLY SPEAKING

University of Virginia Law School professor Kent Sinclair said that every state has its own version of sovereign immunity. He also said that in Virginia, it is a complex and somewhat inconsistent concept that "takes days to teach students."

In essence, he said, counties, as divisions of the state, are completely immune from tort claims, which are civil cases usually seeking damages for a perceived wrongdoing.

Still, Sinclair said that state and local governments sometimes make payments to people harmed by acts of negligence, but it is a legislative, rather than a legal, action. That means a Board of Supervisors or Virginia General Assembly could vote to pay a claim out of a sense of fairness.


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Two years prior to Bruce Knippel's death--June 2005--Bill Golden accidentally fell from the unloading platform of the Eskimo Hill landfill into a garbage bin below. He broke his ankle in seven places.

Golden filed lawsuits after the accident. The latest was filed in October 2008 and requested $3 million in damages. The case is still pending.

While there have been other injuries at the landfill over the years, Stafford County Fire and Rescue Chief Rob Brown said the number of ambulance calls to the site has not been unusual--22 calls in the last five years, eight of them for injuries.

--Jonas Beals

GOVERNMENTS AREIMMUNE FROM SUITS

The concept of sovereign immunity came to the United States from English law, where it was not possible to sue the king. Founding fathers thought that sort of immunity would serve their new nation and states well by protecting their limited resources. Today, sovereign immunity is used to protect the public purse and discourage frivolous lawsuits.