Widow wins $350,000 after state wrongly ruled her husband’s death a suicide

Shannon Santimore’s husband Clay died in a firearm accident in North Carolina that was wrongly ruled a suicide by the state medical examiners office.
Shannon Santimore’s husband Clay died in a firearm accident in North Carolina that was wrongly ruled a suicide by the state medical examiners office.

A widow was awarded more than $350,000 in damages Friday, more than five years after her husband died in an accidental shooting that the N.C. medical examiner’s office wrongly ruled a suicide.

In a written opinion, N.C. Industrial Commission Deputy Commissioner James Gillen found that Shannon Santimore suffered severe emotional distress after a 2012 accident in Asheville in which her husband fatally shot himself while joking around with friends.

Gillen harshly criticized state officials, saying they ignored evidence from both police and their own local medical examiner who both concluded the shooting was accidental.

“Plaintiff blamed herself for the defendant’s incorrect manner of death determination and experienced anxiety about having to explain to her children their father intentionally left them due to the ‘suicide’ misclassification,” Gillen wrote. “Plaintiff felt as if she was unraveling, had difficulty sleeping, lost weight rapidly, experienced a racing heart and found it difficult to eat.”

The ruling calls for Santimore to receive $250,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress and another roughly $108,000 for pecuniary damages.

State officials have 15 days to appeal the case to the full Industrial Commission. The panel hears workers compensation, tort claims and other civil cases.

Clay Santimore’s death gained public attention three years ago when it was featured in an Observer series showing North Carolina’s medical examiner system conducted thousands of faulty investigations into suspicious deaths.

The report also found that families were left with unsettling questions about how their loved ones died. Survivors, including Shannon Santimore, said faulty death rulings prevented them from immediately collecting life insurance payments they deserved. And in at least two cases, medical examiners gave the wrong cause of death in suspected murders.

A 39-year-old financial advisor and father of three young children, Clay Santimore traveled from his Massachusetts home to Asheville to visit a friend in January 2012.

Clay Santimore, who had never fired a gun, picked up a gun he and others had been discussing. Believing the weapon was unloaded, witnesses said, he he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide and dismissed Shannon Santimore’s requests to change its decision.

The agency said it considers cases suicide whenever people died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the mouth – whether the victim realized the gun was loaded or not.

But a judge disagreed, saying for a case to be ruled suicide, the victim “must have the intent to take his own life.” The judge ruled Clay Santimore’s death an accident.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027