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Court Hears Ala. Civil Rights Case

November 4, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Relatives of a black woman who died in a house fire in Tarrant, Ala., after white firefighters allegedly refused to rescue her asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to let them pursue unlimited damages against the city.

Dennis G. Pantazis, lawyer for the family of Alberta K. Jefferson, told the justices the state laws that restrict wrongful death awards should not take precedence over federal common law.

Mrs. Jefferson’s civil rights were violated by the firefighters and the suburban Birmingham city that employed them, he argued.

Mrs. Jefferson, who had lost her legs to diabetes, perished in a Dec. 4, 1993, fire at her home. Her husband and two sons sued the city, contending one of the sons had to pull her from the burning house after firefighters refused to attempt a rescue.

Pantazis said the firefighters also refused to administer first aid or even check for a pulse after Mrs. Jefferson was pulled from the house. He called it an example of the city’s ``custom and practice of depriving black citizens″ of equal protection of the law.

Although the lawsuit is still pending in Alabama, the Alabama Supreme Court and lower courts have limited the amount of damages the family could collect to $100,000, if they prove the city violated Mrs. Jefferson’s civil rights.

The justices appeared reluctant to consider the case on its merits. They spent almost half the hour of oral arguments questioning whether they had jurisdiction to hear the Jeffersons’ appeal.

John Roberts, a lawyer for the city of Tarrant, argued that the appeal is premature since the Jeffersons’ lawsuit could end up at the Alabama Supreme Court again once the trial is over.

``The case has to be finally decided by the highest court in the state before we have jurisdiction,″ said Justice Antonin Scalia, one of six justices who indicated they did not believe the court has jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

The court will issue a ruling in the case before its term ends next summer.

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