The city of McComb is contesting a default judgment in Pike County Circuit Court in favor of the mother of a McComb man who died while in police custody.
Circuit Judge Mike Taylor ruled against the city on Jan. 12, exactly a year after Stephanie Barnes filed a suit over the death of her son Demarcus Brown. Taylor issued an order, following a default judgment, requiring the city to pay Barnes $500,000 with an annual interest rate of 8%.
On March 22, the city filed its response, asking the court to vacate its default judgment decision.
“The plaintiffs failed to strictly comply with the notice requirement of the Mississippi Torts Claim Act,” board attorney Angela Cockerham wrote on behalf of the city. “As such, they are statutorily barred from maintaining this action against the city.”
According to Barnes’ original lawsuit, Brown died Aug. 8, 2019, after police responded to a shooting at the intersection of North Locust Street and Avenue F Extension. The lawsuit said police found Brown lying on the ground bleeding from a gunshot wound, handcuffed him and refused him first aid.
Cockerham also argued the court did not decide the case by its facts when it entered the default judgment.
“This case should be decided on the merits. There is video footage from the on-board camera of the patrol car of the officers’ encounter with the decedent that ... fully exonerates the city of any liability in this matter,” she said.
She said the video in question, as part of testimony from Police Chief Garland Ward, showed one officer arrived on the scene at 4:37 and another at 4:38.
“From 4:40 until the ambulance arrived nine minutes later at 4:49, Officer (Kayleene) Lowe assisted Mr. Brown and never left his side,” Cockerham wrote.
“The ambulance arrived on the scene at 4:49, and Mr. Brown was loaded into the ambulance and transported to Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead,” Cockerham wrote.
Cockerham said Barnes’ lawyer alleged they delivered the notice of claim letter to the mayor, city administrator and a member of the board of selectmen, but Cockerham asserted that the plaintiffs did not deliver a notice of claim properly.
She said the summons did not mention having it delivered to the city clerk, but in Mayor Quordiniah Lockley’s sworn affidavit, he said it was the clerk who dropped the ball, which is specifically mentioned later in the filing.
“Although that notice contains a certificate of service stating that a copy of the notice was mailed to the mayor’s office, the mayor denies receiving the filed notice or having any knowledge of the damages hearing,” Cockerham said, adding that the city’s insurance carrier was also not given notice.
She said since Barnes did not properly give notice, the city and its officers “remain immune from liability on the claims alleged.”
The Enterprise-Journal was able to procure the sworn affidavit of Mayor Quordiniah Lockley, who said the former city clerk was the weak link on the notification.
“In this case, the city clerk inadvertently failed to send a copy of the summons and complaint to the carrier,” Cockerham wrote. “As a result, the insurance company did not retain counsel to defend the lawsuit and did not inform the clerk of any negative coverage position, the latter of which would have triggered the clerk to inform Mayor Lockley of the potential need to retain counsel to defend the matter.”
This directly contradicts an email from Lockley to the board that was provided to the Enterprise-Journal.
“I am glad to report to the board that Mississippi Municipal Services, our insurance carrier, dropped the ball and not the city clerk,” he wrote, noting he found several emails where the former administrator sent emails about the case to the city’s insurance company last October. But the insurance company never followed up after getting the police chief’s information.
“For those who want to point the finger at the Mayor, City Administrator, City Attorney and City Clerk, they are all wrong. It is the insurance company who dropped the ball.”
The email also alludes to the conversation Lockley had with Cockerham, noting it took place before he dug further into the incident. The email was dated March 18, and the motion to vacate judgment was filed four days later.
Lockley said that his statement about the city clerk “inadvertently” dropping the ball was true, noting that there was a communication error between the summons and the insurance company in an interview Friday.
He said he wanted to clarify that though that communication error happened between the city clerk and insurance company, the insurance company already had knowledge of the case, noting they had been told by former city administrator Dirkland Smith and had opened the case file.
He said he was told the insurance company contacted Barnes’ lawyers, who did not contact them back.
The court will hold a hearing on April 19 for the ruling on the request to vacate judgment.