PHOENIX — The widow of a man who died in the Superstition Mountains in 2013 is preparing to file a new $30 million federal civil lawsuit against Pinal County and several members of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team who searched for her husband.
According to court documents sent to PinalCentral by Johnson, Hendrickson & Lalliss Law Offices, Tonya Hensley filed a notice of claim on behalf of herself and two children against the county on Dec. 17 stating that the family planned to file a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Arizona. A notice of claim is a precursor to a lawsuit against a government entity. Johnson, Hendrickson & Lalliss is representing Hensley and her children.
On April 15, 2013, Chris Hensley went hiking alone in the Superstition Mountains. When he failed to return home on time, his wife contacted the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, which was under the supervision of former Sheriff Paul Babeu at the time, for help.
Hensley’s body was found four days later by a private nonprofit search and rescue organization that was contacted by the family. Hensley’s death was ruled accidental. Authorities believe he fell and died shortly afterward while hiking near No Name Canyon.
The family sued Pinal County in Pinal County Superior Court for wrongful death in 2014, saying that Chris Hensley may have been found alive if PCSO Search and Rescue Team members had not ignored photos and other information Tonya provided to them about where her husband may have been hiking.
Pinal County Superior Court Judge Jason Holmberg dismissed the case in 2016, saying a forensic expert hired by the family had not provided enough objective proof that Chris Hensley was still alive while the search was going on.
The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the decision and remanded the case back to Pinal County Superior Court.
A second Pinal County Superior Court judge, Brenda Oldham, dismissed the case again in January 2020 after hearing arguments from both sides and agreeing with an attorney for Pinal County that the county could not be held liable for the actions of another elected official, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, and that the family should have sued the sheriff.
According to the new notice of claim, the Hensley family is alleging that Pinal County violated the family’s 14th Amendment right to due process when the two county judges dismissed the family’s wrongful death lawsuit and ruled “that Pinal County has virtual immunity from claims made against the sheriff’s office while working in the scope of their (PCSO’s) employment by Pinal County.”
The family is also reiterating its claim of wrongful death against the county for the death of Chris Hensley.
According to the notice of claim, the family is seeking $20 million in damages for the “grossly negligent search” conducted by PCSO for Chris Hensley and $10 million for punitive damages due to his death.