A judge in the United States on Tuesday ruled that a civil claim for damages against Anne Sacoolas – the woman accused of killing 19-year-old Harry Dunn while she was driving on the wrong side of the road in England – can be heard in Virginia, according to court documents seen by CNN.
Sacoolas claimed diplomatic immunity and fled to the US 19 days after the August 2019 deadly collision outside RAF Croughton, a military base in England controlled by the US Air Force and used as a global intelligence gathering station by the CIA and NSA.
The United Kingdom’s attempt to extradite Sacoolas to face criminal charges of causing death by dangerous driving was declined by US authorities in January 2020. Instead in September 2020, the Dunn family filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against Sacoolas and her husband Jonathan in Virginia, where the couple live.
Sacoolas had sought to dismiss the civil case on the grounds that it would have been more convenient for it to be heard in England, even though she has repeatedly refused to travel back to the UK to face criminal prosecution.
At the US District Court in Alexandria on Tuesday, Judge T.S. Ellis denied the motion by the defendants to dismiss the civil case, saying it should continue in Virginia. “The convenience of the parties and the ends of justice are best served by retaining jurisdiction in this case in the Eastern District of Virginia,” Ellis said.
Ellis explained his decision partly because of what he described as “an obvious inconsistency” in Sacoolas’ argument that a civil case would be best heard in England while she also refused to return to the UK for any legal proceedings.
Radd Seiger, adviser and spokesman for the Dunn family, said in a statement that the family was “delighted to see that common sense has prevailed,” and added, “Harry’s parents never wanted to enter into dispute with anybody, and they fundamentally believe that the way to resolve differences is with dialogue.”
Harry’s mother, Charlotte Charles, told CNN in a statement, “We are pleased and relieved at the Court’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.”
At the time of the August 27, 2019 crash, Sacoolas had been described as “the wife of a US diplomat,” but in a surprising revelation earlier this month, her lawyer John McGavin told the Virginia court that she was employed by the US State Department.
According to a transcript of the proceedings, during questioning on February 3, Judge Ellis asked about McGavin’s clients’ work at the time of the crash: “Are you saying Mr. and Mrs. Sacoolas were employed by an intelligence agency of the United States and that’s why she left?” McGavin replied: “I think that was a significant factor, certainly, especially for Mr. Sacoolas.”
Later in the hearing Ellis continued: “And what did Mrs. Sacoolas do for the department or agency of the United States for which she was then employed? McGavin answered: “Your Honor, I do not have details of what her specific roles or duties were. I do not know that.” Judge Ellis continued: “Are you suggesting that’s a matter of security, as well?” McGavin replied, “That is what I have been led to believe, Your Honor, but I do not want to overstate that.”
McGavin told the court that he was unable to “completely candidly” explain why the Sacoolases fled from the UK, saying, “I know the answer, but I cannot disclose it.” He later disclosed that she was employed by the State Department and they had recalled her.
The revelations of Sacoolas’ employment by the US State Department at the time of the crash reopened questions about her claim of diplomatic immunity when she fled the UK. It had been known that her husband was working for US intelligence as part of the ‘administrative and technical staff’ at RAF Croughton, but Anne Sacoolas was only referred to as a wife of a diplomat.
According to court papers filed in London related to Anne Sacoolas’ claim of diplomatic immunity, the US and UK governments made a secret agreement in the mid-1990s that American intelligence officers posted to RAF Croughton would not be able to claim diplomatic immunity for any criminal incidents that occur outside the US base.
However, the deal didn’t apply to the wives and children of the Americans deployed to England, who would still be eligible for such immunity. If it had been known in the days after the crash that Anne Sacoolas was employed by the US State Department, she may not as easily have been able to claim the diplomatic immunity of a spouse.
The US State Department has repeatedly said Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity at the time of the crash as the “spouse of an accredited staff member of the U.S. Embassy office.”
In his ruling on Tuesday, Ellis made his feelings clear on Sacoolas’ decision to flee to the US after the crash, and her refusal to return to the UK to face her criminal charges: “While it is commendable that Defendant Anne Sacoolas admits that she was negligent and that her negligence caused Harry Dunn’s death, this does not equate acceptance of responsibility. Full acceptance of responsibility entails facing those harmed by her negligence and taking responsibility for her acts where they occurred, in the United Kingdom.”
The next court hearing in the US is scheduled for March 3, and Seiger told CNN that Harry Dunn’s parents “now intend to pursue their legal rights to the fullest extent possible.”
This story has been updated with more information.