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Judge throws out wrongful-death suit against Tenn. cop

An officer who left a drunken woman outside a locked house is not at fault for her death 45 minutes later, judge ruled

By Jamie Satterfield
The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — A Knoxville officer who left a drunken woman outside a locked house is not at fault for her death 45 minutes later, a federal judge has ruled.

Kentucky U.S. District Judge David Bunning has tossed out a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Knoxville Police Department and Officer Randall Smith in the August 2010 death of Mysti Breez Leath. A second officer, Jason Artymovich, who was nominally involved in the case, also has been cleared in the litigation.

The lawsuit blamed Smith for Leath's death in a car crash 45 minutes after Smith left her outside her parents' locked home. According to the judge's ruling, Leath, 23, had been involved in a brawl among a house full of young women, all of whom had been drinking.

The fight had concluded when Smith and Artymovich arrived. With no evidence to show who started the fight, the officers chose not to arrest anyone, but Smith offered to take Leath to her parents' home. When they arrived, the house was locked, and no one came to the door. Leath assured Smith she could gain entry via a hidden key, so Smith, who was captured on audio worrying over leaving Leath "intoxicated" outside, left, Bunning wrote.

Leath did not go inside the house, however, but instead wound up a passenger in a car driven by one of the women with whom she earlier had brawled. Leath was killed when her drunk friend crashed the car into a tree. A police report filed at the time indicated Leath may have contributed to the crash by again fighting with her friend in the car.

The lawsuit alleged Leath was drunk and high on prescription drugs when Smith dropped her off and faulted him for leaving her alone and "in danger." He owed her a duty of care once he chose to take her to her parents' home, the lawsuit alleged.

Bunning ruled Smith bore no blame for Leath's death.

"This is unquestionably a tragic case," Bunning wrote. "However ... Officer Smith is not responsible for the tragedy. He did not violate Leath's substantive due process rights because he neither took Leath into custody such that he incurred the affirmative duty to care for her, nor did he leave her in a place of grave danger.

"Instead, he generously gave Leath a ride to her parents' residence and left her when he was assured she could get inside the home," Bunning continued. "Unfortunately, Leath was later killed after choosing to get in the vehicle with an intoxicated driver who wrecked into a tree. Officer Smith had nothing to do with this unforeseeable accident."

Bunning is one of a handful of Kentucky judges who are helping out with Knoxville-based federal cases in the wake of the retirement of U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips. Pamela L. Reeves, tapped by President Barack Obama to replace him, has not yet been confirmed by Congress.

Copyright 2013 the Knoxville News-Sentinel

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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