Oklahoma Wrongful Death Lawsuit Brings National Scrutiny to Stand Your Ground Law

Monroe Bird III

Monroe Bird III, 21, about a month before he was shot.

Parents of Monroe Bird III, the Tulsa man who in February was shot in the neck by a security guard in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lived, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The death of Bird, 21 when he was shot, has gained national attention during a time when shootings of African American men by law enforcement officers — in this case, a security guard — have repeatedly made the news.

The lawsuit will also draw national attention for its implications regarding the Stand Your Ground law, as well as bad faith insurance.

I will enter the fray with a few opinions:

1. Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground law, adopted in 2006, and similar laws in 44 other states, were designed to empower citizens to protect themselves against intruders in their homes and businesses. Such laws were never intended to make it easier for a private security guard to shoot an unarmed man in a residential parking lot.

2. Any time a uniformed officer shoots an unarmed person, there better be an extremely good explanation. Law enforcement officers and security guards are employed to protect the public, not endanger them.

3. It is shameful when insurance companies handle a claim the way Monroe Bird’s insurer handled his. The company used the confrontation between Stone and Bird to renege on Bird’s medical coverage. It appears that that decision played a big role in Bird’s death.

4. This is another incident in which citizens must turn to civil litigation to find justice. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler never brought charges against Stone for shooting and ultimately killing Bird. When the government, insurance companies or corporations fail to consider the rights of citizens, the civil justice system is the public’s last defense. Some people disparage civil judges and attorneys — until they find themselves on the wrong end of a raw deal and turn to the courts for justice.

What Happened?

Bird was shot in the neck on Feb. 4 by the security guard of the Tulsa apartments where he lived. The shooting left him paralyzed from the neck down. In May, Bird filed a lawsuit against Stone, the security company he worked for, and the apartment complex. However, Bird died on June 30. Bird’s parents filed the wrongful death suit earlier this month.

All parties involved — Monroe’s family, the security guard, and Tulsa police and prosecutors — agree on many details of what happened.

Bird was sitting in a car with a teenage girl in the parking lot of the apartment complex. Around 8:30 p.m., the security guard, Ricky Leroy Stone, 57, confronted Bird and his guest. Bird backed his vehicle out of the parking space and began to leave the parking lot. The security guard pulled his gun and fired into the back window, hitting Bird in the neck.

Where the parties disagree is that Stone says Bird struck him with his car when he backed out, causing him to fear for his life, which is why he fired his gun. As a result of his injuries, Bird had no memory of the incident. His family’s wrongful death lawsuit says Stone ordered Bird to leave the parking lot and he was merely trying to comply.

Finessing the Stand Your Ground Law

According to the Tulsa World, “[Tulsa District Attorney Steve] Kunzweiler previously said he decided not to file a charge in the shooting because there was not sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction under Oklahoma’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.” The World also reported, “The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office determined that Stone’s actions were justified.”

Here’s the full text of Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground statute. I will make a few observations; quotations in the following bullet points are straight from the law.

* The Stand Your Ground law was designed to allow people to protect themselves “within their homes or places of business” against intruders who “had unlawfully and forcibly entered.” How does any of that apply to what happened to Bird? The young man was sitting in a parked car in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lived.

* The Stand Your Ground law applies when the shooter has “a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm.” If the deputy shot Bird as he was driving away, it will be difficult to prove “reasonable fear” or “imminent peril.”

* The lawsuit alleges that Stone was high on marijuana. It says that a blood test to which Stone submitted shortly after the incident found 6.8 nanograms of marijuana in his system. In some states where marijuana use is legal, 5.0 nanograms is the threshold for determining impairment. The marijuana point is significant because the Stand Your Ground law does not apply if “the person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity.”

Insurance Bad Faith?

Here is where this already tragic story really turns ugly. Bird had health insurance. The bullet wound paralyzed him from the neck down, requiring expensive medical care. However, in May or early June, the health insurance company cut off Bird’s coverage.

The company originally said their decision was justified because Bird was involved in “illegal activity,” although Bird was never charged or even accused of any crime. The insurer has since changed the wording to “hazardous activity.”

Because of loss of coverage, Bird was discharged from the hospital and had to be cared for at home. He died from a blood clot which could have been treated if he had proper care.

Crystal Patterson, chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s committee on fiduciary litigation, told the New York Times that cases of medical coverage being denied on grounds of illegal activity “are more common than people think.”

Let me conclude by responding to two quotations I came across:

* “Most Insensitive Comment” goes to Tulsa County Assistant DA Erik Grayless, who is quoted as saying: “We feel terrible for Mr. Bird and his family. But ultimately it was Mr. Bird’s actions that caused this to happen.” According to every account, Bird was minding his own business when Stone confronted him.

* “Most Intelligent Comment” goes to Bird’s stepfather, Johnny Magness: “If the security guard believed there was some illegal activity going on, he should have called the police, and we believe if that would have happened, we wouldn’t be here today in these tragic set of circumstances.”