Umi Southworth's estate files wrongful-death lawsuit against city

Estate claims wrongful death, seeks punitive damages

jkegley@herald-leader.comJune 14, 2011 

Umi Southworth

The administrator of the estate of murder victim Umi Southworth has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, claiming Lexington police acted in "a reckless, wanton and egregious manner" by failing to realize Southworth was still alive for several hours while they conducted a homicide investigation.

After officials realized she was alive, she was taken to University of Kentucky Hospital, where she died the next day. Her husband, Don Southworth, was charged with her murder earlier this month.

Fayette County Public Administrator Dennis A. Bradley filed the lawsuit Friday evening on behalf of the estate and on behalf of Umi and Don Southworth's 13-year-old daughter, Almira Fawn Southworth.

The lawsuit is seeking an undetermined amount of money for punitive damages, lost wages and loss of the power to earn money on behalf of Umi Southworth, as well as "the loss of parental love, affection, companionship and consortium" on behalf of Almira Fawn Southworth. It also seeks damages for "mental and physical pain, suffering and anguish" on behalf of the mother and daughter.

City Spokeswoman Susan Straub said she could not comment on open lawsuits.

Justin Morgan, the attorney for the estate, said Umi Southworth was included in the pain and suffering damages because it was possible she had some degree of consciousness through the ordeal.

"We don't know whether she was conscious or not. We do know she was conscious for some time at the hospital," he said.

Police officers found Umi Southworth June 9, 2010, after investigating a report that she did not show up to work. She had been badly beaten with a piece of wood and left in the bushes behind the Meadowthorpe Avenue fourplex she shared with her husband and daughter.

She was so badly injured officers thought she was dead, leaving her lying outside while investigating. She died June 10, 2010.

"She laid out there for five hours in the rain while the police interrogated her husband," Morgan said.

Don Southworth has pleaded not guilty to the killing. He had filed a petition to become administrator of his dead wife's estate on June 1, 2011, and was indicted on one count of murder the same day.

Morgan said it "raised some eyebrows" that Southworth was arrested just hours after he filed the petition, which indicated he planned to sue for wrongful death.

"There was certainly nothing inappropriate about Don Southworth filing to be administrator of the estate," he said.

There is a one-year statute of limitations to become administrator of someone's estate, which is required before any assets can be distributed. Don Southworth filed to become the administrator of his wife's estate nine days before the first anniversary of her death.

Bradley, a Lexington attorney who handles probate court cases when heirs cannot be found or are not available, was appointed administrator of the estate in Don Southworth's stead, according to court documents.

"Because of the criminal charges, the court deemed that would not be prudent" for Don Southworth to claim wrongful death damages, Morgan said.

Umi Southworth, a native of Indonesia, did not have a last will and testament and had no family members in Kentucky except for her husband and daughter. She also had little money to her name, Morgan said.

"The decedent's estate consists primarily of an unliquidated claim for wrongful-death damages," probate court documents said.

Don Southworth is not a party. If he is convicted of the murder, he would not be able to recover any damages, Morgan said.

Any money that might be won in the lawsuit would go to Almira and toward court and attorneys' fees, he said.

The lawsuit retells the story that has made headlines for more than a year. The document said that police "exercised exclusive control of the location at 1486 Meadowthorpe Avenue for approximately five hours before officials from the office of the Fayette County Coroner were allowed access to the Decedent Umi H. Southworth."

"When officials from the office of the Fayette County Coroner were allowed to examine her body, Umi H. Southworth was alive," the document said, adding that none of the officers on the scene checked Southworth for vital signs.

Police have admitted mistakes in their response, calling it a failure of policy and personnel. No disciplinary action was taken, but officers were retrained under a new policy requiring, among other things, that paramedics be called to the scene of every apparent homicide to check for signs of life.

"As a direct and proximate result of the employees of (Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government), the estate of Umi H. Southworth is entitled to pursue a claim for her wrongful death," the lawsuit said.

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