By NEIL HARVEY
The only survivor of 2015’s mass shooting at Bridgewater Plaza in Moneta is suing the television station whose on-camera interview was the scene of the attack, whose two crew members were shot and killed during the onslaught, and whose disgruntled former employee was the gunman.
Vicki Gardner’s civil complaint against WDBJ (Channel 7) seeks $6 million in compensatory damages and claims the station is guilty of negligence in its hiring and handling of Vester Lee Flanagan II, the man who four years ago used a pistol to attack Gardner, reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward.
Gardner’s suit initially was filed Aug. 25, 2017 — just one day shy of the shooting’s second anniversary — but it has moved slowly through Franklin County Circuit Court and, on Thursday, it was amended and shortened.
The case stems from the incidents of Aug. 26, 2015, when, just after dawn, Gardner was the subject of a live WDBJ interview conducted by the two-person crew of Parker and Ward.
While they were recording, they were ambushed by Flanagan, a reporter fired by the station more than two years earlier largely because of his volatile and threatening behavior on the job. Flanagan shot all three of them, killing Parker and Ward and seriously injuring Gardner. He left and killed himself later that day while being chased by police.
Gardner has since told The Roanoke Times that Flanagan’s bullet struck her spine, left her with severe back pain, cost her a kidney and a portion of her intestines, and caused other issues.
Her suit says treatment for her injuries has so far resulted in $221,850 in medical expenses.
The complaint accuses WDBJ of negligent hiring and negligent retention with regard to Flanagan. It says Flanagan had problems with past employers, specifically TV station WTWC in Tallahassee, Florida, which fired him in 2000 for issues that reportedly included “poor performance ... misbehavior with regards to co-workers ... failure to respond to corrective recommendations ... refusal to follow directions ... use of profanity on the premises.”
Gardner’s suit said WDBJ failed to properly screen Flanagan, who worked under the name Bryce Williams, and it claimed that the station did not conduct criminal background checks when it hired him in March 2012.
Her suit further accuses the station of not taking action against Flanagan’s misbehavior as an employee, volatility that led him to receive multiple written warnings before he was terminated in February 2013.
“Had WDBJ conducted a reasonable investigation, it would not have hired Flanagan,” it says.
“Not only did WDBJ not properly vet Flanagan, they continued to allow his employment to continue, even 9 months after the first complaint of Flanagan’s violent verbal abuse and threats of imminent criminal battery against its employees began,” the suit continues. “Had WDBJ taken action sooner, they could have avoided the murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, as well as the serious injuries that Vicki suffered, and the carnage of August 26, 2015 would have been avoided.”
Initially, Gardner’s lawsuit was broader, seeking $9 million and claiming four total counts of negligence. But court records show that on July 16 in Franklin County Circuit Court, Judge Clyde Perdue sustained the defense’s objection to the case but granted Gardner 30 days to submit an amended complaint on the matters of hiring and negligent retention. That was filed Thursday, but it’s not clear when the case will be taken up again in court.
Gardner is represented locally by Bill Stanley, and WDBJ by Harman, Claytor, Corrigan & Wellman of Richmond, court filings show. Those attorneys could not be reached by phone Thursday.
The two prior claims of negligence, since stricken, argued that WDBJ’s remote assignment at Bridgewater Plaza had been minimally staffed, leaving Ward, Parker and Gardner “as ‘sitting ducks,’” with “no one to notice Flanagan’s presence, to yell ‘run,’ to call the police or take any type of protective action whatsoever.”
That branch of the negligence claims also argued that Parker and Ward were familiar with Flanagan, and with his behavior and his firing, and “had a duty to warn Vicki and to protect Vicki from Flanagan.”
In a memo in support of its demurrer, the defense wrote that Flanagan’s history contained no prior acts of violence and said the station’s last interaction with him occurred more than two years before the attack.
It argued that Gardner’s initial claim of negligence was flawed because, legally, the station had no special relationship with her.
“Even if a special relationship existed, Ms. Gardner has not alleged facts to establish that WDBJ had knowledge of an imminent probability of harm, or even that Flanagan’s heinous acts were reasonably foreseeable.”
Gray Television, which bought WDBJ in early 2016, several months after the shooting, initially was named in Gardner’s suit but was later nonsuited as a defendant.
Gardner recently stepped down after 17 years as executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce. She had planned to hold that position for an even 20 years, but she said her ongoing health issues made the work increasingly difficult.
Earlier this year, she had surgery to repair damaged vertebrae in her lower back and has a related surgery scheduled for next month.