In response to a federal lawsuit, a Lynchburg police officer who shot an unarmed man in his home said her role as a public official shields her from legal action.
In a filing in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg on Friday, attorneys for Savannah Simmons refute accusations by Walker Sigler that Simmons violated Sigler’s civil rights and acted with gross negligence when she opened fire into his home last year.
Attorneys for Simmons argue the officer is not liable for the shooting under the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects public officials from lawsuits if their actions did not clearly violate federal law.
Police officers hold qualified immunity from civil lawsuits over simple negligence, but have no legal protection when their conduct arises to gross negligence, as alleged in the suit filed last month by Sigler’s attorneys.
The suit claims Simmons, 23, and another officer, Edward Ferron, 42, ignored federal law and alternative methods of investigation when they shot Sigler in his Link Road house in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2018. Sigler is seeking $12 million in damages.
Prosecutors have said a team of five officers led by Ferron were investigating an open front door deemed suspicious on the night of the shooting. Sigler, who had been awoken by the police presence, was shot when Ferron and Simmons mistook him for an attacker.
When the shooting occurred, Simmons had been on the job for about one and a half years.
Sigler was shot in his right leg and suffered substantial blood loss, resulting in partial vision loss, according to his attorney, John Lichtenstein.
A grand jury ultimately indicted the officers last year on felony charges of reckless handling of a firearm, unlawful wounding and unlawful shooting at an occupied domicile. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop those charges in exchange for a plea of no contest to misdemeanor reckless handling. The two also avoided jail time and were sentenced to 100 hours of community service in March.
In Lynchburg Circuit Court, the officer’s lawyers argued police had reason to believe a crime had been committed inside the home based on the open front door. They said Ferron and Simmons feared for their safety when they heard Sigler approach the open front door, unaware he was the home’s owner.
Though she still is employed by the department, Simmons now is on administrative leave without pay pending the result of an internal police investigation. Ferron voluntarily resigned in April.
Simmons and Ferron both are being represented by the Lynchburg City Attorney’s office, which has hired two outside lawyers to head the case. Salem-based attorney Jim Guynn, Jr. is representing Simmons and Charlottesville-based attorney Richard Milnor is representing Ferron, according to court records.
Lynchburg City Attorney Walter Erwin said Friday that Guynn and Milnor were tapped for their experience defending law enforcement officers from civil suits. According to Erwin, the two lawyers have worked together on similar cases in the past.
On Tuesday, Erwin met with Lynchburg City Council members in closed session to provide an update on the status of the litigation.
According to court records, Ferron has until July 19 to file his own response to Sigler’s suit.
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.