Lawsuit against Navy is dismissed

Family blamed academy in death of midshipman

He fell from dorm window


February 03, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

A Philadelphia judge has dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the Navy by the family of a Naval Academy midshipman who was killed in a fall from his dormitory window.

John Paul Ruggiero, a junior from Gouldsboro, Pa., tumbled 53 feet to his death in August 2002 after a night of drinking with his friends off campus.

Ruggiero's parents sued, claiming that the Navy was negligent in its failure to secure the large windows of Bancroft Hall with screens or bars.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Thursday incorrectly identified U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo. Caputo sits on the federal court in Pennsylvania's Middle District in Scranton, Pa.
The Sun regrets the errors.

In tossing out the suit, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo cited the Feres Doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court ruling that protects the military from being sued by soldiers and their families for active-duty injuries.

Caputo determined that although Ruggiero was not on active duty at the time of the accident, he was subject to the Feres Doctrine as a student at a military service academy.

"Midshipman Ruggiero would not have fallen from his window in Bancroft Hall had it not been incident to his status as a midshipman," Caputo wrote in a 10-page decision dated Jan. 20.

An attorney for the Ruggiero family said yesterday that the judge's application of the doctrine was "too broad."

"Feres does not apply to what we're saying, which is there was negligence because they did not have bars on the window," said David P. Tomaszewski, a lawyer with a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., firm.

"He was getting into bed, and at some point, he fell out of it."

Lt. Erin Bailey, a Navy spokeswoman, had no immediate comment on the ruling.

Investigators were unable to determine what caused Ruggiero to fall after 1:30 a.m. Aug. 18.

That evening, the aspiring naval aviator cooked an Italian dinner for 20 friends at the home of an Annapolis sponsor to celebrate the start of school, according to people familiar with the case. Returning to Bancroft Hall by the midnight curfew, he traded Internet messages with a friend.

Whether Ruggiero slipped on the sill of his fourth-floor window or lost his balance while reaching out to grab his gym clothes remains unknown. At 7:15 a.m., two midshipmen found his body on the tennis court beneath the window.

Naval investigators determined that Ruggiero had a blood-alcohol content of 0.11 percent when he fell and ruled the death accidental.

By the next year, academy officials had installed screens on the large dorm windows at Bancroft Hall.

Attorneys for Ruggiero's family have filed an appeal with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Tomaszewski said. "We disagree with the decision," Tomaszewski said, "but it was not completely unexpected. We realized we would have to go to a higher court to get the relief we are asking for."

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