An appeals court in Richmond ruled this week that the federal government should not be held liable for damages from a 1993 crash in which a White House tour guide driving to work killed a young girl and seriously injured her brother.
A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a ruling by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria that the government is not responsible for the accident.
However, the appeals court did not address the substantive question of whether the government is responsible for employees’ accidents that occur on the way to work.
Instead, Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for the court that proper filing procedures were not followed by the tour guide and her insurance company when they attempted to get the government to reimburse them for a settlement made with the children’s family.
Court records show that Charlene Cozart was asked on a Sunday in September 1993 to give a tour of the White House to visiting foreign dignitaries. She had never worked on Sunday in the past.
After attending church services in Fairfax, Va., Cozart began her drive to work and collided with John Niehoff’s Chrysler minivan. Both Niehoff children, 5-year-old Amber and 3-year-old Taylor, were not wearing seat belts. They were thrown from the vehicle when the rear door latch was broken.
The Niehoffs, of Burke, Va., informed both Cozart and the Chrysler Corp. of their intention to file suit.
Cozart contacted the Justice Department, whose attorneys said paperwork with the attorney general’s office would have to be filled out. But even if it was, they argued, the government should not be held liable, since driving to work did not qualify as being on the job.
The Niehoffs told Cozart they would settle out of court with her insurance company, the United Services Automobile Association. Cozart agreed to that. The USAA paid the Niehoffs $375,000.
Cozart then filed suit in District Court, arguing the government should reimburse the insurance company on her behalf.
Stephen Paul Zachary, Cozart’s attorney, said he was not surprised by the court’s decision this week.
“I didn’t think I’d get by the hurdle” of the filing procedure, Zachary said. -30-