Politics & Government

Judge tosses Crawford County coroner’s lawsuit, calls it meritless

A judge Monday issued a blistering, multilayered rebuke to Crawford County Coroner Allen O’Neal, tossing the coroner’s lawsuit against the county commission from court and warning him that an appeal could be deemed frivolous.

“The Court is confident that this case is not a ‘close case’ and should not be appealed,” Chief Superior Court Judge Tilman E. Self III wrote Monday. “Ignoring a trial court’s warnings regarding the lack of merit of a claim supports an assessment of frivolous appeal penalties.”

O’Neal sued Crawford County last year, saying the county needed to give him an office, a car, Internet and fax gear at his house as well as other equipment or money to do his job. Self’s ruling said O’Neal offered no evidence to support his claims. He invited Crawford County to ask the court to get attorneys’ fees and court costs from O’Neal.

Because O’Neal is an elected county official, Crawford commissioners have been paying for both sides of the legal fight, with costs County Manager Pat Kelly has estimated in excess of $40,000.

Kelly told The Telegraph that O’Neal on Saturday fired a deputy coroner, Kent Winslett, just hours after Winslett responded to a call for service on Kelly’s late brother-in-law.

O’Neal said Monday that no one needed to go to the case on Saturday because the person who died had been in poor health.

O’Neal said he had been handling the case from home and fired the deputy coroner after telling him not to use his own car.

“Yep, that’s right, because I’m the boss,” O’Neal said. “If I tell you not to do something and you do it, that’s insubordination.”

In an April 22 hearing, Self said he assumed a GBI criminal investigation of O’Neal involved a possible violation of oath of office.

No criminal charges have been filed.

But Crawford County’s attorney for the lawsuit, Duke Groover, said he interprets O’Neal’s actions Saturday as retaliation for the deputy doing his job, making it a violation of the oath of office.

“I think it’s absolutely outrageous,” Groover said.

Groover said the judge’s warning against filing an appeal is rare.

“It’s very unusual to do that, and in my opinion it’s very warranted,” he said.

The judge’s ruling dismissing the O’Neal’s case against the county cites O’Neal’s own testimony that undermined his case. In the deposition, for example, O’Neal said he didn’t “need an office.” But O’Neal pushed ahead with his suit demanding the office anyway.

O’Neal first had an office in the sheriff’s office. The county gave him a different office within 24 hours’ notice, Self wrote. Self also said O’Neal -- who also wanted a county car -- failed to give any evidence of any coroner in the country suffering from contamination from bodily fluids from a dead body in a personal vehicle. At the court hearing last month, O’Neal’s attorney said the coroner could be contaminated with maladies such as AIDS and Ebola.

Self also quoted from minutes of a February 2014 commission meeting.

“In what can only be described as a stunning display of unmitigated arrogance,” Self wrote, “(O’Neal) then told the Board ‘he needs a vehicle nice enough that he could comfort individuals or family members of a decedent while on site. He stated a Cadillac would be nice.’”

O’Neal said he plans to go to the Crawford County commission meeting Tuesday night.

“I just want them to understand I still have my needs,” he said. “I still need a car.”