Georgia FD EMT Sued Over Positional Asphyxia Death

A fire department EMT and two sheriff’s deputies from Coweta County, Georgia have been sued for violating the civil rights of a man who died of positional asphyxia while being restrained.

Chase Sherman died on November 20, 2015 after being tased and subdued by Coweta County Deputies Joshua Sepanski and Samuel Smith and Coweta County Fire Department EMT Daniel Elliot on I85 in Coweta County.

At the time he was traveling in an automobile with his parents, Kevin and Mary Sherman, and Patricia Galloway. Chase began acting irrationally, prompting his mother to call 911. She informed the dispatcher that her son had taken the synthetic drug “spice”.

The deputies and fire/EMS arrived on scene, and an altercation ensured. Chase was tasered several times by the deputies and all three defendants physically restrained him in the back seat of his vehicle. Shortly thereafter, they realized Chase had stopped breathing and resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

As explained in the complaint:

  • On the evening of November 20, 2015, the Defendants worked together to apply physical force to Chase Sherman that interfered his capacity to breathe and, ultimately, prevented him from breathing.
  • When police officers restrain someone that they are arresting in such a strenuous manner as to prevent the person from breathing, it is often referred to in the medical and law enforcement community as restraint asphyxia.
  • Restraint asphyxia can cause death; it is a form of deadly force.
  • The risk that death can result from restraint asphyxia and positional asphyxia is well known within the law enforcement community.
  • Chase Sherman is dead not simply because the Defendants used excessive force against him.
  • Chase Sherman is dead because the Defendants did not follow the well- known guidelines and warnings within the law enforcement community which are taught in order to avoid in custody death.
  • Chase Sherman is dead because Daniel Elliot did not apply the knowledge that any reasonably trained EMT has – to the effect that the prolonged constriction of the breathing capacity of a person can result in their death.
  • The Defendants, and each of them, breached the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures by engaging in the use of excessive force upon Chase Sherman which resulted in his harm and his death.
  • The Defendants, and each of them, violated Chase Sherman’s affirmative rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of Georgia – rights to be free from abuse while in custody and to be free from unjustified force.

The suit was filed today in US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia by Chase’s parents, Kevin and Mary Sherman. It names the three responders personally, but does not name the county or their respective departments. News sources are quoting Chase’s mother as saying: “When I called 911 that night, I called them to help Chase, not to show up and torture him to death.”

Here is a copy of the complaint: sherman-v-sepanski

News reports indicate that the Sherman family has been asking state and federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Sepanski, Smith, and Elliott, but to date prosecutors have declined. More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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