The family of a 19-year-old British motorcyclist who died after an American woman struck him with her car in England will be allowed to pursue a civil claim against the woman in the United States, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The woman, Anne Sacoolas, was driving on the wrong side of a road near the village of Croughton, in central England, in August 2019, when she hit Harry Dunn, who died at a hospital shortly after the accident. Sacoolas returned to the United States after the collision, and the State Department asserted diplomatic immunity on her behalf. She was later charged in Britain with causing death by dangerous driving.
Dunn’s family filed a lawsuit in the United States last year, which Sacoolas sought to dismiss by arguing that it would be “more convenient” to hold the hearings in Britain. On Tuesday, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia called the argument inconsistent, as Sacoolas has refused to go back to Britain to face prosecution.
“While defendants here argue that the case should be dismissed so that the case may be brought in the ‘more convenient’ forum of the United Kingdom, at the same time Defendant Anne Sacoolas has declared that she will not return to the United Kingdom to face criminal prosecution,” Judge T.S. Ellis III said in his order.
The judgment was the latest development in a case that has caused widespread outrage in Britain and has pitted the British government, which has voiced support for Dunn’s family, against American authorities, who have denied a request for extradition. Last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the refusal to grant extradition a “denial of justice.”
For nearly 18 months, Dunn’s parents, Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, have campaigned to have Sacoolas prosecuted in Britain, going to the White House in 2019, where former President Donald Trump welcomed them and tried to arrange a meeting with Sacoolas, who he said was waiting in a room nearby. Dunn’s parents refused to meet her.
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said last month that the extradition refusal was “final,” arguing that Sacoolas had immunity from criminal jurisdiction at the time of the incident.
But the nature of Sacoolas’ immunity has been thrown into question after her own lawyer said at a hearing this month in Virginia that she was working for an intelligence agency at the time of the crash and later specified that she was a State Department employee.
The lawyer, John McGavin, said that the couple had left Britain because of “issues of security.” He added that Sacoolas’ job was “a significant factor” in her leaving but said he could not disclose why.
Sacoolas’ husband, Jonathan Sacoolas, was working at RAF Croughton, a military base operated by the U.S. Air Force. Under a 1995 agreement, employees at that base had waived immunity for actions outside their work duties, but that deal didn’t cover their dependents — a legal loophole that was closed after the accident.
McGavin’s admission calls into question whether and how Anne Sacoolas was eligible for diplomatic immunity. It was implied at first by British authorities and the press that her immunity qualification stemmed from her husband’s job. But as a State Department employee, she may enjoy immunity as a U.S. diplomat, not as the wife of one. Dunn’s parents are keen to get to the bottom of her status.
Sacoolas and her husband had only resided in Britain for several weeks when the collision happened, according to court documents.
Sacoolas has said she is concerned that she would not “receive fair treatment both with the press and the local community” if prosecuted in Britain, according to her lawyer.
Charles, Dunn’s mother, said the family was pleased and relieved about Tuesday’s decision. “We only took this step as a last resort following the denial of justice in the extradition case on strong legal advice from our legal team,” Charles said.
Sacoolas has admitted that her negligence had caused Harry Dunn’s death. At the hearing earlier this month, Sacoolas’ lawyer, McGavin, said she had never denied the accident and accepted “full responsibility for causing it.”
Ellis dismissed the claim. “Accepting full responsibility doesn’t mean you run away,” he said. “It means that you stay there and face it.”
On Wednesday, Sacoolas’ legal team said in a statement that she was hoping “to bring the family a measure of peace and closure” and was willing to discuss potential mediation.