KNOXVILLE — The mother of a Georgia man killed in an officer-involved shooting last summer has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against local law enforcement agencies in federal court.
Tammy Lewallen, the mother of Ron Harlan Lewallen, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on May 25. She lists as defendants the Oneida Police Department, Scott County Sheriff’s Department and three individual law enforcement officers from the two agencies, claiming that they used excessive force when her son was fatally wounded in the May 2017 incident.
Former Oneida Police Department officer Dustin Laxton and Scott County Sheriff’s Department deputies Tyler Johnson and Daniel Garrett are listed as co-defendants in the lawsuit.
Lewallen was killed on May 27, 2017, during a traffic stop that followed a police pursuit through Oneida.
The 30-year-old Lewallen, who had family ties to Scott County, was the driver of a vehicle that was involved in a police pursuit through Oneida shortly after midnight on May 27. Witnesses said the pursuit began on the Four Lane section of U.S. Hwy. 27 and continued south nearly 1.5 miles.
At the time of the incident, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said that Lewallen stopped his vehicle near the intersection of Alberta Street and Depot Street. However, investigators said, after a female passenger exited the vehicle, Lewallen refused to comply with officers’ demands and accelerated, nearly striking law enforcement officers. Shots were fired into the vehicle, which crashed a short distance away. Lewallen was declared dead at the scene.
The TBI did not name the officers who were involved, which is standard procedure for the state agency in officer-involved shootings. However, the agency’s findings in the investigation, which were turned over to the District Attorney General’s office, reportedly cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
Although the D.A.’s office has not commented on the case, a law enforcement officer with knowledge of the case told the Independent Herald at the time that surveillance footage from nearby businesses was used to corroborate the officers’ version of events.
Tammy Lewallen, however, claims that the officers used excessive force.
“The officers shot multiple rounds into the car where my son was pulled over,” Lewallen wrote in the complaint. “The officers used excessive force by firing multiple rounds of ammunition, killing my son’s depriving of his life" (sic).
As the Independent Herald reported at the time of the shooting, Ron Lewallen had a lengthy criminal history in Georgia, including a past of interfering with law enforcement officers who were attempting to arrest him.
Lewallen’s mother seeks $50 million in damages, writing, “I pray that the court award $50 million to me, since I am Ron Harlan’s mother and next of kin. I ask for a trial by jury too.”
Tammy Lewallen filed the complaint of civil rights violation herself, using a standard court form to handwrite her grievance, rather than enlisting an attorney to prepare a complaint on her behalf. Such a move is hardly unprecedented; a Corbin, Ky. man used a similar approach in 2016 when he alleged that a Sheriff’s Department interdiction officer did not have probable cause to stop his vehicle after that officer arrested him on an outstanding warrant for probation violation.
It is, however, an unusual move, which could indicate that an attorney is unwilling to take the case. The historical precedent has not been favorable for the plaintiffs in pro se cases. Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court in Knoxville granted a motion by attorneys for the interdiction officer — Keith Hawkins — and Scott County Mayor Dale Perdue, who was later named a defendant in the Corbin man’s lawsuit, to dismiss the claims from 2016. The last pro se case prior to that, in 2013, saw a former Scott County Jail inmate’s claim that jailers set him up to be assaulted by another inmate at the jail dismissed by the court after he failed to comply with court orders for documentation.
It is likely that one of the first moves by attorneys for Scott County will be to request the lawsuit be dismissed. U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. has already issued an order governing motions to dismiss the lawsuit, a standard filing that lays out stipulations that attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant must meet prior to a motion to dismiss.