© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate Today Banner

U.S. Court Sides With Family Of Man Killed In Crash Involving Diplomat's Wife

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Harry Dunn, who police say died after being hit by a vehicle driven by the wife of a U.S. diplomat, will proceed in Virginia, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. The driver, Anne Sacoolas, had asked the judge to dismiss the U.S. case to compel Dunn's family to pursue the lawsuit in U.K. courts.

Sacoolas has admitted to driving on the wrong side of the road when her SUV struck Dunn, who was 19. But she has also claimed diplomatic immunity in Dunn's death.

Dunn's family filed the lawsuit against Sacoolas and her husband, Jonathan, in September, seeking a jury trial. They accuse Anne Sacoolas not only of causing Harry Dunn's death but also of failing to call the police or an ambulance. They also say she fled to the U.S. less than a month after the incident, despite promising to cooperate with the British police investigation — an inquiry that later resulted in a criminal charge.

Because Sacoolas has refused to return to the U.K. for either depositions or a trial and because the U.S. has refused a request to extradite her, the Dunns say their only option was to file the lawsuit in Virginia.

In response, the Sacoolases asked a federal court to dismiss the case, saying the matter should be resolved in the U.K. instead. And the couple says that because the two of them view the case as centering on civil damages related to a wrongful death, their presence would not be required in a British court.

Senior U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III denied the Sacoolases' motion to dismiss the case in Virginia, citing "an obvious inconsistency" in the defendants' position regarding the venue and the circumstances. He also said there could well be a need for Anne Sacoolas to testify in court, and he noted that it's not clear how she would do that if the lawsuit were filed in the U.K. instead of in the United States.

The judge concluded, "the convenience of the parties and the ends of justice are best served by retaining jurisdiction in this case in the Eastern District of Virginia."

The tragic collision occurred on Aug. 27, 2019, as Anne Sacoolas was leaving an air force base used by the U.S. military near Croughton, in Northamptonshire, England. She was driving a British-model Volvo SUV, with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. Her SUV struck Dunn head-on, according to court records. At the time, she had been living in the U.K. for several weeks.

It was initially reported that Anne Sacoolas' claim to diplomatic immunity stemmed solely from her husband's status as a U.S. intelligence officer. But recent court records suggest that Anne Sacoolas, like her husband, was working for the U.S. government.

"At the time of the accident, Defendant Jonathan Sacoolas was employed by the United States Government at the Royal Air Force ("RAF") Croughton United States Air Force Base," Ellis wrote in his ruling, "and it appears that Defendant Anne Sacoolas was employed by the United States Department of State."

The ruling comes three months after the U.K.'s high court ruled that Anne Sacoolas does have diplomatic immunity in the case. She had been chargedwith causing death by dangerous driving.

When she filed a motion to dismiss the U.S. case, Sacoolas signed a declaration in which she seemed to waive diplomatic immunity.

"I hereby stipulate that I do not contend a civil claim asserted against me in England arising from the August 27, 2017 motor vehicle accident is barred by diplomatic immunity," the statement says. In what seems to be an error, it cites a date two years prior to the accident. A paragraph above that section had cited the correct date, as it informed the court Sacoolas had retained an English law firm.

As he sided with the Dunn family on Tuesday, the federal judge in Virginia deferred ruling on another portion of the defendants' motion to dismiss, including a bid to clear Jonathan Sacoolas, who owned the SUV, of liability. The judge set a March 3 court date for a hearing on those questions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.