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Family seeks justice after death at landfill page 3
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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Stafford County Attorney Joe Howard said tort cases against the county, although rare, come down to the question of negligence versus gross negligence. Sovereign immunity would not protect a locality in a case of gross negligence, but that is extremely difficult to prove. The county would almost have to intentionally plan to harm someone to prove gross negligence.

"There's no question it was tragic," Howard said. "But these cases are tricky and complicated."

Howard was not involved in defending Knippel's lawsuit--that was handled by private attorneys for Fredericksburg, Stafford and the R-Board. Typically, localities have insurance that covers the cost of defense in tort cases.

Sinclair said the defendant's first reaction in such cases is usually to plead sovereign immunity.

"Courts always say it is a protection of the public purse, of taxpayers," Sinclair said. "A 'con' is that it results in uncompensated injuries where there is clearly negligence in some instances."

He also said that the need for sovereign immunity has been questioned on occasion.

"It has been the subject of considerable attention of law reformers over the past eight years," he said.

MOVING ON

Like her late husband, Renee Knippel is a Marine. She is now stationed in New Orleans, but still owns their house in Stafford. She hopes to move back to the county.

For now, each trip back to Virginia includes a stop at Arlington National Cemetery, where Bruce was buried with full military honors.

In the first year after he died, Renee would take Ellie to Arlington on weekends.

"She grew up basically running around in the graveyard," Renee Knippel said.

It has been a difficult healing process for them. But for Renee, one of the hardest parts has been the frustration she found in the legal system.

She wants others to know how unfair the system can be.

"If someone doesn't fight," she said, "how would anything get changed?"

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036
Email: jbeals@freelancestar.com


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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.