Deadly Lockheed shooting lawsuit headed to jury

Published 10:58 pm Tuesday, October 30, 2007

JACKSON (AP) — Details about racist confrontations at a Lockheed Martin plant are likely to be made public for the first time when a jury hears evidence in a lawsuit more than four years after one of the nation’s deadliest workplace attacks.

Doug Williams, who had worked at the Lockheed plant in Meridian for almost 20 years, abruptly walked out of a mandatory diversity training class on July 8, 2003. He returned with a shotgun and a rifle, killing five people and wounding eight before shooting himself.

A federal judge’s ruling in September cleared the way for a jury to hear a lawsuit against Lockheed’s employee assistance provider, Milwaukee, Wis.-based NEAS Inc.

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This will be the first lawsuit related to the shooting to be heard by a jury, probably sometime next year unless the case is settled. The case is somewhat unusual in that it targets NEAS instead of the defense contractor.

Lockheed faced multiple lawsuits over the shooting, at least one of which was settled. The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. Other lawsuits were dismissed, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The lawsuit against NEAS, which was filed by Erica Willis, the daughter of one of Williams’ victims, seeks damages and acknowledgment the crime was preventable.

racist attack, attorney William F. Blair said.

‘‘I expect that details of the knowledge of what happened 18 months before the murders will come out for the first time,’’ Blair said. ‘‘It is unbelievable how much everyone knew about Doug Williams that were never considered in determining whether he posed a safety risk to his co-workers.’’

Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., is not a party in the lawsuit and therefore ‘‘it would be inappropriate to comment,’’ said Sam Grizzle, a Lockheed spokesman.

Philip Chard, NEAS’ president and chief operating officer, did not immediately respond to a message left Monday. He has declined comment in the past because of the pending litigation.

Some of Williams’ black co-workers at the plant say they complained for months that he threatened them, used racial slurs and even spoke of a coming ‘‘race war.’’

This is what the lawsuit claims. Williams was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation more than a year before the attack because he allegedly made racist threats during an argument with a fellow worker. Lockheed apparently decided Williams’ employment would be contingent on completing counseling and referred him to NEAS. NEAS sent Williams to an affiliate in Meridian called Psychology Associates. However, NEAS failed to communicate with Psychology Associates the nature of Williams’ problems, saying only he had ‘‘boundary/communication issues.’’

Williams was cleared to return to work in January 2002 after just three counseling sessions.

‘‘NEAS was told everything they needed to know to determine that Doug Williams’ death threats were real and it failed to even tell Psychology Associates the nature of the threats,’’ Blair told The Associated Press. ‘‘We believe that the six workers would be alive today had NEAS performed its job.’’

Both NEAS and Psychology Associates asked U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee to issue a summary judgment earlier this year and dismiss the lawsuit. Lee ruled in September for Psychology Associates, saying the company should not be held responsible.

‘‘In the Court’s opinion, however, the evidence of record is adequate to create a question for the jury on the questions of whether NEAS should have been aware of Williams’ threats and whether, in light of such information, it should have reasonably foreseen Williams’ attack,’’ Lee wrote in his order.

Mark Colson, an attorney for Psychology Associates, said his ‘‘clients are obviously very pleased’’ without going into detail because the decision could be appealed.