Craig Ellingson, dad of Brandon Ellingson, reacts to accidental drowning verdict
A federal judge has rejected counts against top Missouri Highway Patrol commanders in a civil lawsuit over the drowning of a handcuffed man two years ago.
In a ruling filed Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey said lawyers for the family of Brandon Ellingson hadn’t proved that 11 top commanders and patrol officials had conspired to cover up the cause of Ellingson’s death at Lake of the Ozarks in an effort to squelch the family’s right to due process.
“Plaintiffs have not shown any comparable injuries that either burdened their ability to file suit or resulted from such impairment,” Laughrey wrote in her 11-page order. “Plaintiffs further have not specifically identified any underlying claims that cannot be remedied through other causes of action.”
The decision means that all counts against individual commanders have been dismissed and won’t proceed to trial in federal court. One count against the state of Missouri and the patrol is still active, but the attorneys for the defendants have filed a motion to dismiss.
What are still active, and headed for trial in mid-October in federal court in Jefferson City, are several counts against Trooper Anthony Piercy, including negligence and a civil rights violation.
Piercy arrested Ellingson, 20, on May 31, 2014, on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. As Piercy transported Ellingson to a field office for testing, traveling at speeds up to 46 mph, Ellingson was thrown from the boat.
Ellingson’s life vest, which wasn’t properly secured around his handcuffed body, came off soon after the college student entered the water.
Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s ruling and insisted that there was a cover-up by the patrol. Officials initially said Ellingson may have jumped from the boat voluntarily, and Piercy’s accounts of what happened changed as time went on.
“I’m looking forward to trying this case in October in front of a jury,” Craig Ellingson told The Star. “We’ll face the trooper that killed my son.”
A Highway Patrol spokesperson declined to comment Thursday on pending litigation.
In May, Laughrey ruled that a jury could consider allegations that Piercy had violated Ellingson’s civil rights. She also allowed claims that Piercy acted negligently in Ellingson’s death, as well as an allegation that Piercy was part of a conspiracy.
Based on the allegations in the lawsuit, “a jury could find Piercy made a series of decisions during Brandon’s seizure that, taken together, fell far outside the scope of reasonable officer conduct,” Laughrey wrote in that ruling. “Brandon, meanwhile, suffered a fatal injury as a result of Piercy’s erratic driving while he was restrained.”
The Ellingson family filed the civil lawsuit on Dec. 5, 2014, two days before Brandon would have turned 21. The original lawsuit was against the patrol, Piercy, the state of Missouri and several commanders, including now-retired colonel Ron Replogle and the current superintendent, Bret Johnson.
The lawsuit came three months after a jury in a Morgan County coroner’s inquest found Ellingson’s death to be an accident. In that inquest, Piercy at times cried as he told jurors he wasn’t properly trained for what he’d encountered the day Ellingson died.
One year after the family filed suit, special prosecutor William Camm Seay charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter. That criminal case is scheduled for trial in late September in Morgan County.
A 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol and the Highway Patrol set the stage for the drowning, The Star has reported. After the merger, road troopers across the state were used to help out on the water and Water Patrol officers at times were assigned to the road.
The Star previously detailed how Piercy — an 18-year veteran road trooper — received only two days of field training before he worked on the lake alone.
Since Ellingson’s death, road troopers no longer patrol the lake alone.
In the civil case, it will come down to Piercy’s actions that day in May 2014.
But because individual commanders won’t have to stand trial in civil court, Craig Ellingson said, he fears little will change in the way the patrol operates.
“That ruling let everyone off the hook,” he said.