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Renee Knippel wraps her arms around daughter Ellie, who was there when her dad suffered a deadly fall in 2007.
By the time Renee Knippel arrived at the landfill in Stafford County, her husband was already gone.
When she peered over the edge of the unloading platform, all she saw was a pool of blood and a blood-drenched towel on the asphalt 8 feet below.
Her husband, Bruce, died in Inova Fairfax Hospital nine days later on June 26, 2007. The cause of death was a skull fracture he sustained when he accidentally fell from the unloading area at the dump.
That horrible accident three years ago left a family of two--Renee and her daughter, Ellie, who was there when Knippel fell--and questions about how such a thing could happen in the first place.
Stafford resident Samuel Jones was at the Rappahannock Regional Landfill off Eskimo Hill Road that day, throwing bundles of newspapers into the recycling bin. He noticed Bruce Knippel and 3-year-old Ellie doing the same thing. It was Father's Day, and they looked like they were enjoying their time together.
"I was right beside him," Jones said. "He was showing her how to throw stuff in the Dumpster. Next thing I know, he was gone."
Jones was the first person to reach Knippel, 63, who had fallen over the edge onto the concrete pad next to the end of the large, metal container. Jones was also a retired Marine, although he did not know Knippel prior to the fall.
It was a scorching hot day. Jones brought water to Knippel and yelled for help.
"I knew that we couldn't move him," Jones said. "We just had to do the best we could."
Jones said that it took a long time, but an ambulance responded. A medevac helicopter was called in while a couple at the landfill comforted Ellie.
At the landfill today, a low concrete curb surrounds the lip of the raised, oval-shaped unloading area, which overlooks the recycling and waste containers. In the gaps between the roll-off containers, metal railings of various heights sprout from the top of the curb. A 10-foot screen fence stands on the ledge above the recycling containers. Some of those railings were present when Knippel fell, but there was not one installed where he went over.
"I think within 24 hours they put railings up," Jones said.
SUING THE SYSTEM
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."
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.
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.
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
Two years prior to Bruce Knippel's death--June 2005--Bill Golden
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
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.