A federal court says the U.S. Army is not liable for more than $1 million in medical bills for Michael Lahoff, who was left a quadriplegic after being robbed and shot by a young Army recruit in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Three judges from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against the Army that was brought by an insurance company that is paying for Mr. Lahoff's medical care and lost wages.
Continental Casualty Co. claimed the Army, under pressure to meet recruiting quotas, signed up an unstable 18-year-old named Marty Allen Armstrong and inadvertently gave him access to a pistol.
Mr. Armstrong enlisted in the Army's delayed entry program while a student at Peabody High School. The Army recruited him even though court records showed he had been charged with aggravated sexual assault and two cases of disorderly conduct at age 13. He then underwent psychiatric care.
Mr. Armstrong's mother kicked him out of her house when he was a senior at Peabody in 2002. This left him in jeopardy of not graduating from high school, which was a requirement for him to begin active duty in the Army.
His recruiter, Staff Sgt. Korey Lewis, allowed Mr. Armstrong to move into his apartment, violating an order from a superior, according to the lawsuit. While staying with the sergeant, Mr. Armstrong stole a 9 mm pistol.
On Jan. 3, 2003, just before Mr. Armstrong was to leave for the Army, he and a cohort robbed Mr. Lahoff of $15 in the Smithfield-Liberty parking garage. With the money in hand, Mr. Armstrong fired two shots from the stolen gun. One hit Mr. Lahoff in the neck, paralyzing him from the shoulders down.
Now 55, Mr. Lahoff requires 24-hour care in a nursing home. The insurance company estimated that his treatment and lost wages have cost more than $1 million and could reach $4 million. Mr. Lahoff had made his living repairing fax and copy machines.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, whose staff helped defend the Army, said the case was not one of Army misconduct.
"The United States of America could not be held responsible for the tragic robbery and shooting of Michael Lahoff because his injuries were not caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government," she said.
The three-judge panel agreed and dismissed the insurance company's lawsuit.
"Harm here was not foreseeable ... [Sgt.] Lewis knew of no obvious danger in taking in a recruit who had passed background checks," the judges said in their 35-page decision.
Still ahead is another civil lawsuit, this one by Mr. Lahoff against the city of Pittsburgh's parking authority.
His lawyer, Philip Ignelzi, claims a guard in the parking garage was moved to help with traffic control just minutes before the shooting. Mr. Lahoff's lawsuit is scheduled for a jury trial in November in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
As for Mr. Armstrong, he ended up in state prison instead of the Army. He is serving 25 to 50 years for robbery and attempted murder.
Milan Simonich can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1956.