In October 2011, a Newton County jury found the Covington Housing Authority 90% at fault for the 2006 shooting death of twenty-year-old Tammara “Erica” Reed after it leased a housing unit to Reed’s murderer despite his criminal record. The jury awarded Newton’s minor children $1.5 million, half for the full value of her life and half for the pain and suffering of her children.
In September 2006, Reed and her sister borrowed the car of Willie Gunn, who lived near them in a complex managed by the Covington Housing Authority, to make a trip to McDonald’s. When they returned, Reed went to Gunn’s apartment to bring him a hamburger. After she entered the apartment, Gunn shot her. She attempted to leave the apartment but fell on the sidewalk outside where Gunn shot her several more times. It is not clear why Gunn shot Reed, but witnesses claimed they had argument the night before concerning car keys. Gunn plead guilty to malice murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Reed’s family brought suit against the Housing Authority because it had not performed the proper background checks on Gunn before leasing his house. Under the Housing Authority’s own guidelines, it should not have rented a unit to Gunn. A background check would have shown several criminal convictions for sexual battery, shoplifting, and two DUI’s. Gunn also provided multiple birthdates in his application materials, all of which were inaccurate and should have raised red flags. More damningly, Gunn had been convicted of murder in 1963. Though this very old conviction would not have shown up in a background check, a Housing Authority director testified that she was aware of the murder conviction.
Lawyers for the Housing Authority successfully moved to have Gunn added as a non-party defendant. During its six-hour deliberation, the jury found that the Housing Authority was 90 percent at fault in Reed’s death and that Gunn was 10 percent at fault.
When someone is killed through the negligence, recklessness, or criminal acts of others, survivors of the deceased may pursue wrongful death claims against the responsible parties. While money can never replace a lost life, it can help a family begin the process of recovery by offsetting losses from medical expenses, counseling and lost pay. In the case of especially egregious conduct, punitive damages may be appropriate.