APPOMATTOX — A judge on Wednesday dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Ronald “Bo” Scruggs, a victim of convicted murderer Christopher Speight’s January 2010 killing spree that left eight dead in Appomattox.
Kimberly and Ronnie Scruggs filed the lawsuit Jan. 19, 2012, exactly two years after their 16-year-son was gunned down by Speight at his family home at 3030 Snapps Mill Road. The suit sought $5 million to cover funeral expenses, sorrow and punitive damages and initially was filed against the estate of Lauralee Sipe and her husband, Dwayne “Shannon” Sipe, Speight’s sister and brotherin law, who he also killed, along with their 4-year-old son, Joshua.
An amended complaint named Robert New, a close friend of the Sipes who has referred to Dwayne Sipe as a brother and was godfather to their late son, as the administrator of the estate. New appeared in Appomattox County Circuit Court on Wednesday as the defendant.
New sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, and a hearing took place Wednesday for Circuit Court Judge Kimberley S. White to consider the motion. After hearing from Brandon Osterbind, New’s attorney, and David Mitchel, attorney for the Scruggs, White ruled to dismiss the lawsuit after speaking about the murders’ still lingering impact on the quiet community.
“I hope history won’t ever repeat itself,” White said. “This is one of the most tragic things ever to happen in Appomattox County.”
She said she is keenly aware of the “very raw” emotions left in the wake of the killings.
Kimberly and Ronnie Scruggs were not in court Wednesday during the proceeding.
Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Kimberly Scruggs declined comment on the ruling.
White said she wished she could wave a “magic wand” to prevent the tragedy and get Speight, serving five life sentences plus another 18 years in prison for the murders, the help he needs.
“Unfortunately there are some people who can’t be helped,” White said.
Speight’s rampage began Jan. 17, 2010, when prosecutors said he killed his sister, her husband and their son in the home. Two days later, he gunned down Scruggs and the four remaining victims: Morgan Dobyns, Lauralee Sipe’s daughter; Jonathan and Karen Quarles, both 43; and their daughter Emily Quarles, 15, who was friends with Bo Scruggs.
The five were killed outside the home where the Scruggs’ lawsuit said Speight stockpiled an arsenal of weapons, including bombs, grenades and more than a dozen firearms. The suit argued Lauralee and Dwayne Sipe, who were living at the home with him, should have known he was “mentally unbalanced” and a danger to others.
The murders were “reasonably foreseeable” and Lauralee and Dwayne Sipe took no action to warn likely guests or invitees of a danger that Speight posed, the suit claims.
Osterbind argued in court Wednesday that the allegations do not prove the Sipes had a legal duty to warn Scruggs or the other victims of Speight’s actions, which he said were unforeseen by them. He pointed to a recent ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court that overturned a Montgomery County’s jury verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit of two families of victims in the April 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
The Supreme Court opinion ruled as a matter of law the commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third-party criminal acts. Osterbind argued the Sipes did not have a duty to protect Scruggs from a third party, Speight, and there was no special relationship giving rise to that duty and they were not aware of an imminent danger.
The couple moved in with Speight in 2009, about a year before the murders took place, he said.
Osterbind said if the couple knew what was going to happen, they would not have put themselves in harm’s way.
“The Sipes were among the first to be killed,” he said, adding of the suit’s allegation: “It just doesn’t make sense.”
He said the killing spree was an“unfortunate event” but the law does not provide for the recourse the Scruggs were seeking.
Lauralee Sipe replaced Speight as a beneficiary of a family trust in 2007, Osterbind said.
Mitchel said in court that Speight had mental illness issues dating back to 2006 and that was known by his sister. She replaced him as the beneficiary of the trust as a consequence of those issues, he said.
Osterbind said Lauralee Sipe was not the guardian of Speight and there was no legal requirement for her to protect Bo Scruggs. He said it was “simply not fair” to place a burden of protection on them.
“There is no opportunity for the Sipes to warn Bo Scruggs,” he said. “They are victims of Christopher Speight, too.”
Speight was convicted Feb. 15 and sentenced in a plea deal that had some victims’ family members upset he was not given the death penalty. Commonwealth’s Attorney Darrel Puckett said at the time it would have been difficult to secure a death penalty conviction, given the results of his mental health evaluations.
Puckett said during the sentencing hearing that Speight told police he was instructed by an Egyptian princess named Jennifer to kill the first three victims, the Sipes and their son, because “they were being used by demons to take over the earth.”
He was taken into custody after an 18-hour standoff with local and state law enforcement. Bo Scruggs, shot in the back, was the seventh victim.
White said her ruling was based on case law that gives very narrow rules to the exception of warning of a third party’s criminal conduct. She said it could be argued Speight’s mental issues made his actions less foreseeable, counter to the suit’s claim that it was preventable.
“Who in the world could ever foresee that happening?” White said.