Lexington dismissed as defendant in suit over Umi Southworth's death

Judge rules it has 'sovereign immunity'

jwarren@herald-leader.comAugust 4, 2011 

A Fayette Circuit Court judge on Wednesday dismissed the city of Lexington as a defendant in a civil lawsuit over the death of Umi Southworth, who lay alive for hours while police conducted a homicide investigation last year.

The lawsuit, however, goes on.

Judge Pamela Goodwine ruled that the Urban County Government was shielded from being sued under the legal concept of "sovereign immunity."

However, Goodwine's ruling means that attorney Justin Morgan, who represents Southworth's estate, may continue the lawsuit against as-yet-unnamed city employees who went to the scene when Southworth was found. Morgan said after Wednesday's hearing that his next step would be to identify those employees.

Lexington police officers found Umi Southworth, 44, in bushes outside her Meadowthorpe Avenue home on June 9, 2010. She had been beaten so badly that police thought she was dead and left her lying there for several hours before calling the Fayette County coroner's office. Staffers from the coroner's office examined Southworth and discovered she was still breathing.

Southworth was rushed to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, where she died the next day. Her husband, Don Southworth, was charged with murder almost a year later. He has pleaded not guilty.

The administrator of Umi Southworth's estate sued the city in June, claiming that Lexington police acted in a "reckless, wanton and egregious manner" by failing to realize Southworth was alive while they conducted their investigation. The suit was filed on behalf of the estate and on behalf of Umi and Don Southworth's daughter, Almira Fawn Southworth, who will be 14 next week.

Morgan, the estate's attorney, later amended the suit to include as defendants various unnamed city employees who were involved in the case.

The city's attorney, Rochelle Boland, argued during Wednesday's hearing that Lexington was "cloaked" by sovereign immunity in the case and that Kentucky law provides no exceptions from that protection. Morgan countered that immunity shouldn't apply in a case in which city employees might have violated their statutory responsibilities.

Goodwine accepted Boland's argument, dismissing the city from the suit.

Sovereign immunity basically prevents federal, state and local governments from being sued in most instances.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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