MDOT: Family can't sue state agency for wrongful death

Mar. 17—TUPELO — Since the family of a Lee County school resource officer fatally injured on the job filed a worker's compensation claim for benefits to cover the medical and funeral costs, the state is arguing they cannot sue the Mississippi Department of Transportation or any other state agency for negligence.

Those are the grounds on which MDOT asked Senior Circuit Court Judge Paul Funderburk to toss the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Johnny Patterson.

A motorist traveling at an estimated 75 mph on Highway 45 ran into the veteran law enforcement officer, who was directing afternoon traffic in front of Shannon Primary School in January 2022. He later died from his injuries.

In the lawsuit filed in January 2023, the family accused MDOT and others of negligence because the flashing lights were not working on a roadside sign warning motorists to slow down as they neared the school.

In the motion for summary judgment filed earlier this month in Lee County Circuit Court, MDOT attorney Chris Deaton cited two sections of the Mississippi Code that could give the state agency, or any state agency, immunity from the lawsuit.

One section of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act provides immunity "for any governmental entity" when the claimant is an employee of a state agency and the injury is covered by the Worker's Compensation Law through the state agency. A separate section of state law prevents anyone from suing their employer for damages if worker's compensation benefits are available through the employer.

MDOT says about a week after the officer's death, Patterson's family filed a claim for worker's compensation benefits through the Lee County School District, a state agency.

"Because Mr. Patterson was injured in the course of his employment with one agency of the state and received worker's compensation from his employer, another agency of the state, (state law) provides immunity to MDOT for all claims in this matter," Deaton wrote in the motion. "Patterson's estate, and all his wrongful death beneficiaries, are barred from bringing action against Patterson's ultimate employer, the State of Mississippi and any of its departments and agencies."

When contacted by the Daily Journal, the Tupelo-based attorney refused to offer any more information, saying he was "not authorized to make any comments concerning ongoing litigation." A spokesperson for MDOT executive director Brad White said neither the director nor the commissioners nor any employee could discuss ongoing litigation.

Likewise, the attorney for the Patterson family declined to comment. Thomas Cooley said only that he planned to respond to the MDOT motion by the end of the month.

Lee County, which is also a named defendant in the lawsuit, filed paperwork this month to join in the MDOT motions for summary judgment and to stay discovery until after a ruling is made on the summary judgment issue.

In January, Patterson's sons, Cody and Corey Patterson, filed suit, arguing failure to maintain the flashing light sign and negligence on the part of MDOT and Lee County led to the death of their father.

In mid-February, MDOT responded to the original complaint by saying the highway department was only responsible for the metal signs. It said the Lee County School District was responsible for the upkeep of the flashing lights and produced a 21-year-old document signed by then school Superintendent Johnny Green.