CHARLOTTE COUNTY: After years of delays, the wrongful death lawsuit against the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office over the 2008 murder of Denise Lee finally appears to be heading to trial.
Circuit Judge Christine Greider this week rejected the second bid by the Sheriff’s Office to have the suit dismissed. Jury selection is scheduled to begin July 16.
Denise Lee’s widower, Nathan Lee, filed the lawsuit in fall 2009, accusing Sheriff Bill Cameron and his employees of being negligent in investigating Lee’s abduction and contributing to her death.
Lee says a potentially lifesaving 911 call was mishandled by Charlotte County dispatchers. On Friday, he said he has been frustrated by the legal delays and the Sheriff’s Office’s refusal to accept responsibility.
“I’m confident in my attorneys, and I have confidence that the Sheriff’s Office will be held accountable for not dispatching that call that could have saved her,” said Lee, who is raising the couple’s two sons.
“If they had put that call through, there is not a doubt in my mind that Denise would still be here,” he added.
Despite this week’s ruling, Lee’s attorney, Patrick Boyle, said the trial could still be delayed. He said that Bruce Jolly, lead counsel representing the Sheriff’s Office, told the court that he would seek a stay of the trial pending an appeal of the decision.
Jolly was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bob Carpenter said the office does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Denise Lee, 21, was abducted from her North Port home Jan. 17, 2008. Two days later, her body was found buried in a shallow grave in North Port, a few miles from where a 911 caller had seen her in a car driven by unemployed plumber Michael King.
On the night of Lee’s disappearance, the witness told the 911 center that someone, possibly a child, was screaming in the back seat of a dark-colored Camaro. The dispatch center never relayed this information to deputies, who were looking for King and his green Camaro at the time.
King, 40, was later arrested and convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Lee. King was sentenced to death.
The Sheriff’s Office contended that the suit should be thrown out on technical grounds because there is no statutory or common law duty of care to relay a 911 call, and the office had only a duty to the public at large and not specifically to Denise Lee.
Boyle argued that there was a duty owed by the Sheriff’s Office to protect Lee under the circumstances.
Boyle said Greider noted that a similar motion to dismiss had been denied once before, by Circuit Judge Lee Ann Schreiber in 2010. The Sheriff’s Office sought an appeal then but it was dismissed, Boyle said.
“It’s been a long time, with a lot of time essentially taken away from us by the motion practice of the Sheriff’s Office,” Boyle said. “We think it’s time to try this case, and not a time to delay it.”
Nathan Lee and his family have pushed for new standards and training for 911 dispatchers through the Denise Amber Lee Foundation. In 2008, a state law named for her set voluntary standards for emergency call centers.
The Sheriff Office’s handling of 911 calls and dispatches that night were investigated, and two dispatchers were suspended and required to take remedial training.
The lawsuit is seeking a jury award; Boyle said the statutory limit is $100,000, but the jury is not bound by that limit.