The family of Reuben Gray, who died after a car accident involving an American diplomat in Nairobi two years ago, filed a civil lawsuit against the diplomat in U.S. District Court here yesterday.
The Gray family, whose story was first told in The Washington Post a month ago, previously filed administrative claims against both the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Those claims have not been settled.
In the accident, which occurred Feb. 5, 2001, Gray's van was hit head-on on Ngecha Road in Nairobi. The other vehicle was driven by Dirk Dijkerman, the head of the USAID mission in Kenya. Because Gray's wife, Leslie Fair-Gray, was an employee of the United Nations at the time, that agency conducted an investigation into his death. In its report, the U.N. found that Dijkerman -- who had been coming from a party on the night of the accident -- was "driving on the wrong side of the road, at excessive speed and with his headlights on high beam." Dijkerman left the country a few days later and Kenyan authorities did not lodge any charges against him.
Reuben Gray, who was 42, died two days later after being airlifted to a Johannesburg hospital. His son Brandon, 17 at the time, underwent hip surgery and, according to his attorneys, will likely suffer lifelong complications.
"It is not just about the Gray family trying to get money," says Stuart Newberger, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Grays. "It's about accountability and responsibility, and using the civil law to hold someone responsible for such a terrible, terrible tragedy."
One issue that will have to be resolved is whether Dijkerman has diplomatic immunity. In some cases, governments have waived such immunity. One notable case locally involved a 1997 auto crash in Dupont Circle in which Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadzea killed a 16-year-old girl. Georgian officials waived Makharadzea's immunity and he eventually served about half of a seven-year sentence before being released for health reasons.
"Whatever diplomatic immunity Dr. Dijkerman might assert in a case brought in Kenya," says Newberger, "he cannot hide behind diplomatic immunity in a case brought in Washington."
J. Michael Hannon, an attorney for Dijkerman, said yesterday he expects the case to be defended by the U.S. government. "We will forward the lawsuit to USAID for its resolution of the Gray family's claims," he said.
Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, a State Department spokeswoman, said yesterday that department does not comment on private civil cases.
The lawsuit claims that Dijkerman -- who now heads a USAID mission in South Africa -- left the scene of the accident. "Defendant Dijkerman left the scene of the accident, escorted by U.S. Embassy officials and security personnel, while Reuben and Brandon Gray lay trapped in their crashed vehicle, unable to extricate themselves and in severe pain," the lawsuit alleges.
Many Westerners in Kenya, fearing vigilante justice, believe that it is prudent to leave accident scenes and seek out authorities.
Hannon said his client did not leave the scene until after the Grays had been placed in the back of a pickup truck by local Kenyans for transport to a hospital.
Dijkerman and the Grays wound up at different hospitals on the night of the accident. Dijkerman, who had no serious injuries, was released from Nairobi Hospital. The Grays ended up at a hospital frequented by the indigent.
The lawsuit also alleges that alcohol and Dijkerman's vision problems played a role in the accident. Hannon said Dijkerman had not been drinking and that his eyesight was not an obstacle to his safe driving.
Reuben and Leslie Fair-Gray, both graduates of Howard University, landed in Kenya in 1995. Reuben was a schoolteacher at the International School of Kenya, and Leslie, following jobs with a variety of international aid agencies, went to work as a stress counselor for the United Nations.
"I guess, more than anything, I'm frustrated it had to come to this and that the only way we can get any response from the driver of the car is to litigate," Leslie Fair-Gray, who now resides in New York City, said yesterday. "We're just seeking accountability for what happened. We know the driver of the car broke the law in Kenya and it resulted in my husband's death and son's injury. We simply want the driver to be held accountable for his actions."
The lawsuit seeks $172 million in damages. Newberger said the figure is large because it incorporates claims for the entire Gray family.