Connecticut Court Renders Split Decision in Wrongful Death Ruling

A Connecticut superior court has dismissed several counts in a wrongful death suit against the City of West Haven and the state arising out of a rather bizzare vehicle-accident-tasing-administration of a sedative case, but the case will proceed on the remaining counts for now.

The suit was brought by the Estate of Thomas Vincent Lane, Jr., who died on February 22, 2016 following a vehicular accident on Rt. 95. As explained by the court:

  • At 12:58 a.m. on February 22, 2016, Connecticut State Police personnel responded to a motor vehicle accident on Interstate 95 Northbound in West Haven.
  • Lund was the first officer on the scene and observed a motor vehicle, split in two pieces, in the grassy area between the interstate and the on-ramp.
  • The plaintiff’s decedent, Thomas Lane, was trapped in the driver’s seat of the motor vehicle.
  • The defendants asserted in their written investigation of the accident that they observed Lane to be inflicting self-harm with a shard of mirrored glass.
  • Lund subsequently deployed his Taser and discharged a five-second electric cycle without consent from Lane, without reasonable medical or legal necessity, and not in furtherance of an arrest.
  • Lane then removed the Taser wires from his body and Lund reloaded his Taser and discharged another five-second cycle.
  • Meanwhile, [West Haven Fire Department Lieutenant William] Heffernan ordered Fire and Rescue personnel to ready a sedative for Lane, which was subsequently prepared and given to a paramedic, Heather Gebhardt, to inject.
  • As Gebhardt prepared to administer the sedative, D’Amato deployed his Taser against Lane two times.
  • Gebhardt then injected Lane with the sedative.
  • As a result of the Taser strikes, Lane was put in apprehension of imminent serious bodily harm and death and subsequently died.

The lawsuit names the city of West Haven, the State of Connecticut, police officers, state troopers and Lt. Heffernan, alleging assault and battery, reckless and wanton misconduct, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Again, quoting from the decision:

  • The defendants are moving for summary judgment as to counts two, five, seven, eight, ten, and eleven on the grounds that none of the plaintiff’s claims are viable because D’Amato acted lawfully pursuant to a Connecticut statutory provision and that the negligence claims are barred by governmental immunity.
  • The plaintiff counters that D’Amato’s conduct was reckless because he used the Taser in an irregular manner and against the warnings of the manufacturer.
  • In support of their motion for summary judgment, the defendants submitted the affidavit of D’Amato, in which he attested the following facts.
  • After D’Amato arrived at the scene of the accident, Lund asked D’Amato if he had a Taser because “Lane had a knife or razor blade in his hand and was attempting to cut his wrist and throat with the object.”
  • D’Amato observed that Lane’s right hand was clenched around an object and that he was swinging his arms around and cutting into his left wrist and the right side of his neck with the unknown object.
  • D’Amato “observed members of the [West Haven Fire Department (WHFD)] standing back from the vehicle unable to attend to Lane’s injuries due to the unknown object in Lane’s possession. [He] was aware that if Lane did not relinquish the object the WHFD member would not be able to remove Lane from the vehicle safely and treat him, and therefor[e] Lane would continue to lose more blood.”
  • Lund informed D’Amato that he had already deployed his Taser on Lane twice and that Lane removed the Taser wires from his body.
  • In response to Lund’s request that D’Amato deploy his Taser, D’Amato stood approximately ten feet from Lane, pointed the Taser at Lane’s chest and gave him a warning to drop the object.
  • Lane ignored D’Amato’s command and continued cutting his wrist. D’Amato “then activated the Taser; the probes struck Lane in the chest but appeared to have little to no effect on him in that he was still able to move his extremities.”
  • When Lane began cutting his neck again, D’Amato activated the laser a second time.
  • D’Amato “then observed that Lane’s hand no longer appeared clenched and also that there was no longer an object in his hand.”
  • “Based on the totality of the circumstances, [D’Amato] formed the belief that Mr. Lane was attempting to commit suicide or inflict serious physical injury upon himself, and it was on the basis of that belief that [he] deployed [his] Taser to prevent [Lane] from doing so.”
  • According to D’Amato’s affidavit, he did not intend to harm Lane, rather, he intended to assist the WHFD in extracting Lane from the vehicle and to prevent Lane from harming himself.
  • The plaintiff has failed to submit any evidence to counter these facts and establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether D’Amato intended to harm Lane when he deployed his Taser.
  • Accordingly, there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether D’Amato committed an intentional assault and battery.
  • The motion for summary judgment is, therefore, granted as to count two.
  • In the present case, the defendants submitted the Model Policy on Electronic Control Weapons (ECW) developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which provides that “[t]he ECW is generally authorized to be used in circumstances where grounds to arrest or detain are present and the subject’s actions cause a reasonable officer to believe that physical force will be used by the subject to resist the arrest or detention. Such actions may include but are not limited to: a. use of force against the officer or another person; b. violent, threatening, or potentially violent behavior; c. physically resisting the arrest or detention; d. flight in order to avoid arrest or detention, in circumstances where officers would pursue on foot or physically effect the arrest or detention; e. self-destructive behavior.”
  • This policy establishes that an officer’s use of a Taser is discretionary.
  • The plaintiff, in turn, has failed to point to “some statute, city charter provision, ordinance, regulation, rule, policy, or other directive that, by its clear language, compels a municipal employee to act in a prescribed manner, without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”
  • Accordingly, D’Amato’s conduct was discretionary in nature, and, thus, governmental immunity applies to the negligence claims in counts seven and eight.

The defendants did not fare as well on the other counts. For those interested, here is a copy of the ruling:

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.
x

Check Also

Lost Finger Prompts Suit Against LA County Fire

A man who suffered the traumatic amputation of a finger on July 4, 2020, has filed suit against the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center claiming they “negligently misplaced and lost” the finger. Leon Henry Gibson III filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging “professional negligence.”

Arson Investigators Sue LA City Alleging Race Discrimination

Six Los Angeles City firefighters assigned to the arson division have filed suit alleging race discrimination. Leslie Wilkerson, Joseph Smith, Justin Davis, Robert McClud, Sean Morris, and Mario Newte filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court accusing the department’s leadership of fostering a “good old white boys club.”