A Roanoke television station says it cannot be held legally responsible for a disgruntled former reporter’s fatal ambush of a live interview at Smith Mountain Lake, having hired and then fired the gunman more than two years earlier.
WDBJ filed a motion Friday asking a judge to dismiss a $6 million negligent hiring and retention lawsuit filed by Vicki Gardner.
Gardner, the former head of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, was being interviewed by WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward on Aug. 26, 2015, when they came under fire during the early morning broadcast.
Parker and Ward were killed; Gardner was seriously injured.
The shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II, fled and later killed himself while being chased by police in Northern Virginia.
Gardner’s lawsuit blames WDBJ for what happened, claiming that the station failed to find troubling aspects of Flanagan’s background before hiring him in 2012, then waited too long to fire him the following year after he verbally abused and threatened co-workers.
But WDBJ’s ultimate decision to fire Flanagan on Feb. 1, 2013, should shield it from liability for what happened more than two and a half years later, its attorney says.
The purpose of a lawsuit like Gardner’s is to hold an employer responsible for the foreseeable acts of those it hires, because an employer acts through it employees, Richmond lawyer John Owen wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“An employer does not act through its former employees; therefore, the torts of negligent hiring and negligent retention do not apply in situations where there is no active employment,” the motion stated.
A decision is expected in the coming months.
Gardner, who was struck in the spine by one of Flanagan’s bullets and has incurred more than $220,000 in medical expenses for complications from the injury, had originally sued WDBJ for $9 million.
But Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Clyde Perdue narrowed the case in July, ruling there was insufficient evidence to support two claims: that the station knew Flanagan was a risk and should have warned Gardner, and that the remote location of the assignment at Bridgewater Plaza made the victims “sitting ducks” with no meaningful protection.
Perdue allowed Gardner to file an amended lawsuit that raises only the negligent hiring and retention claims.
On the day of the shooting, Gardner had agreed to a live interview with Parker and Ward for a story on plans for a 50th anniversary celebration of Smith Mountain Lake.
Flanagan, who went by the on-air name of Bryce Williams, apparently picked the location to avenge his perceived grievances with WDBJ, which had police escort him from the building the day he was fired after a turbulent year that included accusations and threats against co-workers.
Using a pistol to gun down his victims, Flanagan videotaped the crime and later posted it to social media before killing himself hours later as police chased him along Interstate 66 in Fauquier County.
In a statement Monday, Owen said the sole responsibility rested with Flanagan, who was let go for “performance-related issues” more than two years before the attack.
“Following his termination, Mr. Flanagan never returned to WDBJ, and he never made any threats to our employees,” the statement read. “No one at WDBJ foresaw, or could have foreseen, this attack.”
Gardner’s attorney, Bill Stanley of Franklin County, could not be reached for comment Monday.