Court sides with Sheri Coleman family in civil case

An appeals court sided with attorneys for the family of slain Columbia mother Sheri Coleman last week in remanding to Monroe County Circuit Court two of three counts of a wrongful death lawsuit naming the ministry for which convicted killer Chris Coleman worked.

Chris Coleman was employed as a security chief for Joyce Meyer Ministries at the time of the May 5, 2009 strangling deaths of his wife, Sheri, and young sons, Garett and Gavin, inside the family’s Columbia home.

He was convicted of all three murders on May 5, 2011 and is serving concurrent life sentences in prison while the criminal case is under appeal.

In addition to naming Chris Coleman as a defendant in the wrongful death civil case, the family of Sheri Coleman included Joyce Meyer Ministries as a co-defendant, claiming it “knew or should have known” their employee was the source of death threats made electronically to himself and his family from a work computer. The ministry had established a “duty of care” to the decedents in that regard, the lawsuit alleges.

Last year, Judge Richard Aguirre sided with the ministry in dismissing the counts in Monroe County Circuit Court, citing foreseeability as a key factor.

“I cannot concede in any way how Joyce Meyer Ministries is guilty of foreseeing that an employee would kill his family,” Aguirre said in his ruling. But the Fifth District Appellate Court offered a different opinion, citing an electronic communications policy enacted by the ministry that governed its employees’ computer use and gave ministry management sole discretion to take disciplinary action.

Judge Judy Cates delivered the judgment of the court, with judges Thomas Welch and Melissa Chapman concurring in the opinion.

“Given the gravity of the threats, it was objectively reasonable to anticipate that some
harm might come to (Sheri,Garett and Gavin Coleman),”the appellate court opinion states. “It may also be reasonable to infer that Sheri Coleman did not have an equal and independent means to investigate the threats, and that Sheri Coleman, relying on JMM’s promises to investigate the threats and to provide security, did not take steps to protect herself and her children from the threatened harm.”

The three-judge appeals court panel stated in its ruling that it is not necessary that a defendant must have foreseen the precise nature of the harm or exact manner of occurrence.

“It is sufficient if, at the time of the defendant’s action or inaction, some harm could have been reasonably foreseen,” the ruling states.

The appellate court also cited cases in Illinois courts in negligent hiring, supervision or retention of an employee who intentionally harmed someone while acting outside the scope of their employment.

The civil case now returns to Monroe County, although a hearing date has yet to be scheduled.

“We obviously can’t go back in time and bring this family back,” Tony Romanucci, an attorney representing the Sheri Coleman family, told the Republic-Times on Thursday. “But we are pleased with this ruling.”

Another attorney representing Sheri’s family, Jack Carey of Belleville, said last week’s appellate court ruling was “a win for now, but we’re only in the first or second inning.”

Attempts to reach attorneys representing Joyce Meyer Ministries for comment were unsuccessful.

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Corey Saathoff

Corey is the editor of the Republic-Times. He has worked at the newspaper since 2004, and currently resides in Columbia. He is also the principal singer-songwriter and plays guitar in St. Louis area country-rock band The Trophy Mules.
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