Tompkins County, N.Y. – A judge has ruled that the homeowners whose property was destroyed in the 2015 standoff on Hornbrook Road in Danby are not owed compensation from the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office or the county.
The standoff at issue began after two Tompkins deputies arrived at 127 Hornbrook Rd. on Dec. 30, 2014 to serve a DWI warrant to David Cady. Cady rented the home with his wife, who greeted the deputies and told them her husband was armed. Sheriff Ken Lansing coordinated responses from multiple law enforcement agencies at the scene. After about 60 hours, the standoff ended when Lansing authorized the use of an armored vehicle called a ROOK to tear down the home’s walls. Much of the home was destroyed. When law enforcement entered, they found Cady dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.
In 2015, homeowners Robert Bartholf and Joseph Petricola filed a civil suit against the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and Tompkins County seeking compensation for the damage to the house.
The plaintiffs, represented by Ithaca law firm Williamson, Clune & Stevens, alleged the sheriff’s office used “excessive and overwhelming force” and was “negligent in their directions and coordination of other law enforcement agencies present at the scene,” according to a summary of the facts included in the court’s decision.
The Tompkins branch of the New York Supreme Court, which is the trial court that hears civil suits, issued a summary judgement dismissing the complaints Sept. 13.
Administrative Judge Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald presided over the case. Her decision acknowledges that the plaintiffs’ property was destroyed by the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. The judge wrote that the home “appeared to be a total loss” based on video footage taken at the scene.
Nevertheless, the court determined that the homeowners are not owed compensation.
“Their tenant engaged in threatening acts which caused the defendants, through proper use of their police powers to seize the property, and as such no compensation must be paid,” the decision concludes.
The court’s finding relies on the doctrine of governmental immunity. As the decision summarizes, if a defendant is carrying out a government function that requires discretionary action, they are immune from liability on the grounds of negligence.
Attorneys for the sheriff’s office argued that the complaints in this suit should be dismissed on the grounds of governmental immunity. The court sided with the defense team’s argument. Even if the sheriff’s office had acted unreasonably, as the plaintiffs alleged, the decision states that the defendant still could not be found liable.
“As these defendants were engaging in discretionary acts for a governmental purpose, they are entitled to absolute immunity and thus whether their actions were reasonable or not is irrelevant,” Fitzgerald’s decision reads.
The court also weighed arguments from the plaintiffs that the sheriff’s office violated two constitutional protections. The plaintiffs alleged that law enforcement violated their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure and 14th Amendment right to due process.
Fitzgerald’s decision rejects the plaintiffs’ claim that a tactical team was called in to serve a DWI warrant, saying that after learning Cady was armed law enforcement set up a perimeter “to protect the citizenry and themselves from an armed man.”
The decision likewise rejects the plaintiffs’ assertion that the ROOK was used for the purpose of carrying out an arrest. Fitzgerald writes, “The use of the ROOK was not the first, second, or even third measure employed by the police on the scene to gain control of the situation. By the time it was used, Mr. Cady had fired his weapon at police, threatened them, and finally broke off all communication. There was clearly imminent danger present.”
With the summary judgement to dismiss all complaints, homeowners Bartholf and Petricola will not receive funds to repair or replace the damaged house. When the lawsuit was initially filed, the lawsuit said the homeowners, “were forced to expend large sums of money in amounts yet to be precisely determined for the loss of rents, demolition, decontamination, removal, disposal and rebuilding of the premises.”
The court decision was filed with the county clerk on Sept. 12, but released by the sheriff’s office Tuesday after they said they had to confirm with the county attorney that it could be made public. The decision comes after February and May hearings. The lawsuit was originally filed by the plaintiffs in 2015. The documents are available to the public in Tompkins County Court.
The sheriff’s office released a statement Tuesday saying, “Although a decision has been reached regarding this case, the sheriff’s office continues to be saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property that occurred during this incident.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.