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Victim’s family sues REACH for negligence

REACH of Jackson County, a non-profit that aids victims of domestic violence, is being sued by the family of a woman shot and killed at a domestic violence shelter last September by her deranged husband.

The lawsuit is seeking damages for pain and suffering and mental anguish, citing wrongful death and gross negligence by REACH for failing to provide better security at the domestic violence shelter.

The victim, Bonnie Woodring, had fled to the shelter with her 13-year-old son in tow to escape her violent husband, Woody Woodring. Bonnie had been staying in the shelter for five days when Woody broke into the shelter and shot her. Bonnie’s son witnessed her murder. Woody fled, leading to prolonged manhunt until he was found dead on a houseboat on Lake Fontana.

REACH recently filed its response to the lawsuit. REACH counters that it was not negligent in providing a secure shelter and calls for the suit to be dismissed.

“It is our position that the case lacks merit and is legally defective. REACH did all that it could to protect Bonnie,” said David Moore, a Sylva attorney and a board member with REACH. “We express remorse for the tragic loss of life but do not believe that there is any fault that lies with REACH.”

The lawsuit against REACH claims otherwise.

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“REACH failed to provide adequate security, lighting and/or alarms for the premises and failed to keep the shelter’s location hidden from foreseeably dangerous men. Had REACH done these thing, Bonnie Woodring would not have been murdered,” the lawsuit states.

Most domestic violence agencies keep the location of their shelters secret, known only to the women who have been admitted. REACH of Jackson County publicized the location of its domestic violence shelter, hoping it would lead more women to seek refuge from abusive spouses.

REACH purported that the shelter was a place to come for protection and had a responsibility to provide a secure setting, the lawsuit claims, but failed to do so, misrepresenting the nature of the shelter.

In the response REACH claims that if anyone should be sued, it is the estate of Woody Woodring. The suit by Bonnie’s family fails to name Woody as a defendant or target of the suit, however.

A short synopsis of Woody Woodring’s actions describe a man bent on tracking down Bonnie no matter what, allowing nothing to stand in his way.

“The intentional and criminal action of John Woodring, which included breaking into a neighbor’s house to steal a shot gun, evading law enforcement on outstanding arrest warrants, breaking in to the emergency shelter, kidnapping a REACH employee, threatening a REACH employee with a shotgun, taking (Bonnie) hostage while at gun point and ultimately shooting and killing (Bonnie) ... insulates REACH from liability for damages,” REACH states in its response.

REACH claims it is also insulated by a liability waiver Bonnie signed before checking in to the shelter. The liability waiver bearing Bonnie’s signature states: “I, Bonnie Woodring, hereby agree to hold REACH of Jackson County harmless from any liability in case of illness or injury to myself or my children as a result of any services (including transportation, shelter, etc.) received while in the REACH offices of shelter.”

The cause of Woody’s death on the Lake Fontana houseboat is inconclusive. Woody had broken into a couple of houseboats moored at the lake for the winter in search of food and shelter. Reports of break-ins — along with the discovery of a van stolen from Knoxville where Woodring had abandoned a previous stolen vehicle — led the police to the area. When they found him, he had a suicide note and a gun in his possession that was stolen from one of the other houseboats. But an autopsy revealed no signs of a gunshot wound or other self-inflicted injury, however, and concluded Woody could have died of a heart condition aggregated by intoxication. Woody had appeared on America’s Most Wanted.

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