A federal judge has denied a motion from Wake Forest University to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit blaming the school for the fatal shooting of a Winston-Salem State University student on its campus last year.
The mother of Najee Ali Baker, a WSSU football player from Brooklyn, N.Y., filed the lawsuit in May in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of North Carolina. Baker was shot outside The Barn, an event venue at Wake Forest University, at 1:01 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2018. Baker died at 1:55 a.m. at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Two people have been charged in connection to Baker's death. Jakier Shanique Austin, 22, is charged with murder, possession of a firearm on educational property and carrying a concealed weapon. Malike Patience Smith, 17, is charged with possession of a handgun by a minor, assault by pointing a gun and possession of a firearm on educational property.
All three had attended a party at the Barn that was hosted by the university's chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. According to court papers, Baker fought with Austin and Smith inside the Barn.
After the fight was broken up, Austin and Smith went to their car to get guns before confronting Austin and another WSSU student on a one-way road on campus, according to the court documents. That's where Baker was shot.
Attorneys for the university have denied allegations that they are liable for Baker's death and said that the university had no way of preventing the fatal shooting or predicting that such an incident could happen.
On Sept. 20, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles denied Wake Forest University's motion to dismiss. That means the lawsuit can go forward.
Eagles said in her brief order that the issues raised by Wake Forest University are better resolved with a more developed factual record. Typically in lawsuits, plaintiffs and defendants exchange information in a process called discovery and have witnesses provide sworn testimony in depositions before a trial date is set.
William K. Davis, an attorney for Wake Forest University, declined to comment about Eagles' order Monday.
Separately, the university's chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed court papers Sept. 24 asking a judge to dismiss claims in the lawsuit against the sorority. Attorneys said the sorority had no duty of care for Baker, either at or outside The Barn.
The sorority also had no knowledge of Smith's or Austin's criminal background before they attended the party and had no ability to predict that Baker might get fatally shot outside The Barn, according to the motion. It went on to say the sorority, comprised of students, had no control over how the university handled large events..
Jeffrey D. Keister, an attorney for the sorority, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.
The lawsuit alleges that The Barn had been the site of numerous problems on campus that required the intervention of university and Winston-Salem police. A combined force of nine university and Winston-Salem police officers monitored events held at The Barn.
But that changed after 2014, the lawsuit said. That's when Wake Forest police shut down a party hosted by Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity. That incident resulted in a town hall that the university held in February 2014 where black and other minority students alleged that the university police were racist in how they handled events hosted by minority students.
The university police chief commissioned an independent study by Developmental Associates, a company operated by two retired, veteran law-enforcement officers. The company completed its report in August 2014 and recommended a number of changes, including ensuring that school law-enforcement and administrators handle event management and not students. The report also recommended university police provide equal security at all student events as a way to eliminate allegations of racial bias.
The lawsuit said that school officials ignored the report's recommendations and reduced the amount of security at large events, including at The Barn. The university also left students in charge of event management and decreased the number of checkpoints for an event, the suit says.
The lawsuit is seeking at least $75,000 in damages. No date for a trial has been set.