WASHINGTON COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) — Lois Shults-Davis has practiced law in upper East Tennessee for 40 years and speaks on what could come from a notice of intent to sue Washington County, Virginia from California.
A former Washington County Sheriff’s Office employee, Austin Edwards, is accused of killing a California 15-year-old’s grandparents and mother, setting their home on fire, and then kidnapping her.
Medical examiners say Edwards took his own life after he tried to run from the police.
Now this California family, referred to as the Winek estate, is claiming wrongful death and negligence against Washington County, Virginia.
Public documents from the intent to sue state that if the Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office had performed a proper background check, then Edwards would have never been hired by the sheriff’s office.
Edwards had resigned from working with the Virginia State Police in October of last year and was hired by the sheriff’s office a week before the triple homicide in California.
Shults-Davis says employee liability to conduct background checks is a complex issue.
“The answer to that question would relate to what type of authority they have, what type of authority they would be exercising,” said Shults-Davis with Shuts & Shults Law Office. “An employer is not of course obligated to ensure that everyone that works for them acts reasonably all of the time because, of course, human beings are human beings.”
She does say employers are still required to provide proper training and use proper care of hiring their employees.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has told News Channel 11 in the past that it contacted Edwards’ past employers and VSP during the hiring process, but no employers communicated any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards.
“Well, if an officer has proper credentials, they’ve operated in that field,” said Shults-Davis. “You have references. You have their training, their information, which augments their application, but you can’t ever assume that something like that’s been done.”
Virginia State Police says a review was launched after agency officials learned of the allegations against Edwards. The results of that review showed that “human error” resulted in an incomplete search of database records.
Washington County’s attorney claims that the sheriff’s office is a separate entity from the county and has recommended to the Board of Supervisors that they deny the claim since Edwards was not a county government employee.
“Well, that would be another avenue of attempting to collect for the damages would be to sue the sheriff’s office under the theory of improper selection and training of that officer,” said Shults-Davis.
The Board of Supervisors is set to meet on May 23 to determine if it will accept the claim.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis confirmed that his office has received an intent to sue.