Circuit court dismisses Autry suit against Western

Mai Hoang

The Warren Circuit Court will not likely be the venue where it is determined who is responsible for the death of Pellville freshman Melissa “Katie” Autry.

Warren Circuit Court Judge Tom Lewis dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit against Western and the Student Life Foundation on Nov. 26.

The lawsuit was filed by Autry’s estate in September.

Lewis agreed with the motions filed by Western and Student Life Foundation arguing that they have government immunity protecting them from lawsuits because they perform governmental functions.

Sandra Hess, Aubrey Livingston, Lynne Allison Todd, Alex Kuehne and Aja Hendrix – all former Poland Hall staff members – were also dismissed from the suit as university employees, but are still being sued as individuals.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Bowling Green attorney Greg Stivers, who is representing Western. “At the hearing a few weeks ago, the judge indicated that’s what he was going to do.”

Ben Crocker, the attorney for the Autry estate, said he plans on appealing the decision this week or next week.

He said he was not surprised by the decision.

“We just disagree with the court’s decision,” he said. “We think Western should be able to be sued for doing something wrong. We think the operations of the dorm was a propriety or a business function; therefore they’re entitled to be subject to suit.”

Stivers said he thinks the Court of Appeals will agree with Lewis’ decision.

The Autry estate may have to file with the Board of Claims, which is where citizens are supposed to file for negligence against state institutions, if they are seeking damages from the university.

The board cannot award more than $250,000 for one claim or more than $350,000 for multiple claims.

“It’s sending the case to the forum where it should’ve been filed initially,” Stivers said.

Crocker said they would consider filing it with the Board of Claims but still prefer the case to be in circuit court.

“I think it’s the proper place for it,” he said.

In the meantime, the five individuals and the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity are still named in the lawsuit.

Stivers, who is representing Livingston and Hess individually, said he is confident that the circuit court will not hold them liable for Autry’s death.

“I don’t think the claims against the university or the students have any merit at all,” Stivers said.

Bowling Green attorney Joe Campbell, who is representing Todd, Kuehne and Hendrix, said his clients did not violate any duties as individual students that would have caused Autry’s death.

“They did not contribute to her death at all, and that’s what the evidence will show,” he said.

Livingston said she would not comment because Stivers advised her against it.

Todd and Hendrix did not return several calls made on Monday and Tuesday.

Virginia White, Autry’s aunt, said she was shocked and disappointed to hear the judge’s decision.

“I respect the judge’s decision, but I don’t agree,” she said. “To me, it just means that you can do whatever you choose and it doesn’t matter because you’ll be given sovereign immunity.”

Reach Mai Hoang at [email protected]