Columbine lawsuit can go forward, judge rules

Parents of victim suing former deputy sheriff

November 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GOLDEN, Colo. - A lawsuit filed by parents of a Columbine High School shooting victim against a former deputy sheriff may proceed, a judge has ruled.

Though he stripped the lawsuit of its claim of defamation, the judge will allow the parents to pursue damages against former Arapahoe Sheriff's Deputy James Taylor on the grounds that his actions were "negligent" and a form of "outrageous conduct."

The case pits parents of a slain son against an old friend they say multiplied their grief.

Jefferson County District Court Judge James Zimmerman's decision was entered Tuesday, the day before investigators revealed that detectives had overlooked a violent Web site created by the Columbine killers nearly two years before the massacre.

The ruling is not related to the release of that information, but is one more example of how 4 1/2 years after the shooting, aspects of the investigation are still reopening wounds.

Susan Petrone and her former husband, Brian Rohrbough, lost their son, Daniel Rohrbough, during the massacre at the school April 20, 1999.

The parents contend Taylor led them to falsely believe their son was killed by the "friendly fire" of a Denver police officer. That belief led them to sue the officer in federal court, where the case was found to be groundless and dismissed.

Taylor had asked that the suit against him be dropped on the grounds that he enjoyed immunity as a law enforcement officer. State law protects police who are doing their duty from lawsuits that seek damages for their actions.

The judge generally disagreed with Taylor, but in stripping the lawsuit of its claim of defamation, Zimmerman has barred the parents from relying on information gained during the sheriff's internal affairs investigation, which cost the deputy his job.

The attorney for Rohrbough's parents, Barry Arrington, said he doubted the remaining claims would suffer from the judge's decision.

"In terms of the damages" the parents are seeking, Arrington said, "any of the claims give them the availability to do that."

Arrington said a dollar amount for the damages had not been established.

Daniel Rohrbough, 15, was killed as students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, embarked on a shooting rampage, killing 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

Taylor, who had been a longtime friend of Rohrbough's parents, told them one day after the shooting he saw their son killed, and that the teen was "dead before he hit the ground," the judge wrote.

Taylor has testified he meant to provide comfort, saying the teen died instantly and couldn't have suffered.

An internal investigation by the Arapahoe sheriff's office found that Taylor had acted improperly, and he was fired.

Taylor admitted during that investigation that he did not see Daniel Rohrbough killed and that he had not even been present. The former deputy said he based his comments on television footage.

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