Judge dismisses four counts against Aroostook sheriff’s office in hostage shooting lawsuit

7 months ago

Maine’s federal court has dismissed part of a lawsuit brought by a Mars Hill woman who was shot by an Aroostook County sheriff’s deputy while being held hostage.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen on Wednesday dismissed four counts of a lawsuit by Lena Gerber against Deputy Isaac Ward and the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office. In the suit, Gerber claimed she was injured when Ward shot the man holding her hostage. 

The sheriff’s office asked in November for the partial dismissal largely because Gerber waited too long to file her claim.

The shooting happened on April 14, 2021, when Jacob Wood, 28, was at Gerber’s residence. In an interview with a Maine Attorney General’s Office detective, Gerber said Wood was high on methamphetamine and drinking, and wanted to commit suicide by cop. 

Deputies arrived at Gerber’s home to find Wood holding a knife to her throat. After Ward repeatedly ordered him to drop the knife, he did not, and Ward shot twice. The shots killed Wood and also hit Gerber, according to the lawsuit and the attorney general’s report on the shooting.

Two days after the incident, Gerber told an attorney general’s office detective that Deputy Ward had tried to protect her, according to documents the Bangor Daily News obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request. The detective interviewed Gerber in the hospital and reported she had bandages on her left arm and upper torso.

Gerber filed suit in August with nine charges against the sheriff’s office, Deputy Isaac Ward and her former attorney, Jeffery Pickering. The suit said the shots grazed Gerber’s side and fractured her sternum. 

Charges included that she had a right not to be shot by police as a hostage victim, that deputies didn’t use nonlethal means to negotiate with Wood, that the sheriff’s office didn’t properly educate deputies on hostage negotiations, and that deputies used excessive deadly force. She also charged that Pickering failed to file her claims before deadlines expired.

Attorneys from Wheeler & Arey of Bangor, representing the sheriff’s office, filed Oct. 9 to dismiss four counts of the lawsuit: that deputies failed to protect Gerber; that their actions caused Gerber significant emotional distress; that the sheriff’s office failed to educate Ward and other deputies on handling “suicide by cop” situations; and that the sheriff’s office is liable for the harm Gerber suffered.

Torresen ruled that Gerber is bound by the Maine Tort Claims Act, which states people must notify a government agency of claims against it within one year, and in case of exceptions within two years. Gerber’s suit was filed two years and four months after the incident.

Gerber alleged the notice deadline did not apply because her injuries came from a gun and that the shooting wasn’t carried out in the line of Ward’s duties, according to Torresen’s decision

“Gerber’s arguments are not persuasive,” Torreson wrote.

Gerber also charged that Ward shouldn’t be protected by immunity in using a weapon while performing his duties, because a gun is “equipment.” Under Maine law, a governmental entity is responsible for property damage or personal injury that occurs in the use of vehicles, machinery and equipment.  

Even if Gerber could prove that Ward was not using the gun in the line of duty, she still must comply with rules to notify the sheriff’s office of her claims against it within the time limit, Torresen said.

The lawsuit’s remaining counts are: a Fourth Amendment violation of unreasonable seizure because Gerber had a right not to be shot by police; 14th Amendment violation regarding the right not to be shot by police; use of excessive deadly force by Ward; violation of Gerber’s civil rights alleging that de-escalation maneuvers were not used by police; and legal malpractice on the part of Pickering.

The Maine attorney general’s office exonerated Ward in February, saying he acted in Gerber’s defense. 

The attorney general investigates all cases of police use of deadly force to determine if the officers’ actions were justified, but it has never found an officer unjustified.

No response to the Oct. 9 motion for dismissal was filed by Gerber or her attorneys. Her lawsuit demanded a jury trial. No further court date has been set.