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Relatives of Washington Navy Yard shooting victim sue for $37.5 million

Security personnel check IDs at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Security personnel check IDs at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Matthew Solan

TAMPA (Reuters) - The family of Mary Frances Delorenzo Knight, 51, who died in the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September, filed a negligence lawsuit on Wednesday against two U.S. government agencies, Hewlett-Packard, and a technology subcontractor, seeking $37.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit claims the shooting in building 917 by Aaron Alexis, 34, in which Knight and 11 other civilian workers were killed and four wounded, could have been prevented with on-site metal detectors.

"It's illegal to possess a firearm on federal property except for on-site law enforcement," said Sidney Matthew, legal representative for the family. "We have metal detectors in airports and courthouses to check for guns. If the U.S. Navy had followed this security procedure this tragedy would not have happened."

Alexis had a Navy security clearance and worked on-site as a technology contractor for The Experts, a Hewlett-Packard subcontractor, based in Fort Lauderdale. He carried out the shooting with a sawed-off shotgun, and ammunition in a backpack, before he was killed in a gun battle with police.

"We're reviewing the filing at this time but have no further comment," said HP spokesman Michael Thacker.

The Experts did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Knight's family also alleges in the lawsuit that the Department of the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to revoke Alexis' Common Access Card (CAC) after a series of red flags about his mental health. Alexis twice sought treatment from a Veterans Affairs hospital for insomnia and said he was hearing voices that kept him awake, Matthew said.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to calls for comment on the lawsuit.

The suit further claims that both Hewlett-Packard and The Experts were aware of Alexis' mental state and failed to take necessary action and did not initiate an adequate background check.

"All the flaws in the various systems are just immense, and I think they need to review everything they are doing," said Patricia Delorenzo, Knight's sister.

Justin Givens, a lawyer for the family in Tallahassee, Florida, cited Alexis' run-ins with police and his history of mental illness to argue the government agencies should have acted on the information.

"Mr. Alexis not only had a history of mental illness but was involved in gun crimes, and here you have an individual who is given clearance to be on U.S. military facilities," he said.

The lawsuit details three occasions when Alexis, a former Navy reservist, was arrested.

The claim also criticizes the handling of his clearance by the government and the defense contractor who employed him.

Alexis was a contract employee for the Defense Department and received a "secret" clearance in 2008 despite several violent incidents, including a 2004 arrest in Seattle for shooting out a car's tires. The case was never prosecuted, and in a 2010 shooting incident was ruled accidental.

A "secret" clearance is a mid-level security classification that allows the holder access to classified information, which could be damaging to national security if released. It falls below the "top-secret" clearance, which requires more frequent background examinations.

In the wake of the shooting, the security clearance process has come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where senators are examining the government's procedures for conducting background checks.

After the shooting the Pentagon said it would review security at military installations around the world and the White House promised to review standards for federal government contractors.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Knights two daughters and her sister. Each is seeking $12.5 million in damages.

(Patricia Delorenzo v USA, Dept of the Navy, Dept of Veterans Affairs, The Experts LLC and Hewlett Packard Enterprises Services LLC (#8:13-CV-03048)

(Editing by Andrew Hay)

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