Minnesota Medics Entitled to Qualified Immunity on Excessive Force Claim

The US Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined a growing number of circuit courts holding that fire and EMS personnel who restrain a combative patient should not be evaluated under the Fourth Amendment excessive-force analysis that applies to police officers. Rather, fire and EMS personnel are “acting as medical responders, not as law enforcement officers,” and as such may be acting in an objectively reasonable manner when administering a sedative to a patient for purposes of qualified immunity.

That ruling was handed down today in a lawsuit brought by Brittany Buckley over a 2017 incident where medics from Hennepin County EMS administered ketamine to sedate her for transport to a hospital. Buckley contended that the use of the sedative was unnecessary, and as such constituted the use of excessive force. She also claimed that the medics, the hospital, and the physicians violated her due process rights because the ketamine was administered as part of a study.

The trial court ruled in favor of the medics, concluding:

  • “the paramedics’ decision to inject Buckley with ketamine while responding to a medical emergency did not violate Buckley’s right to be free from excessive force under the Fourth Amendment,”
  • “Buckley fails to allege a violation of her substantive due process right to bodily integrity,”
  • “Buckley also fails to allege a violation of her substantive due process rights premised on Defendants’ [medical] deliberate indifference,” alternatively, the paramedics are entitled to qualified immunity, the physician defendants are entitled to qualified immunity “because the Court has seen no evidence that designing, implementing, and overseeing the ketamine studies violated a clearly established right,” and the claims of Monell liability fail because “the complaint and documents embraced by the complaint do not plausibly allege that the individual Defendants violated Buckley’s constitutionally protected rights.”

The Eight Circuit agreed with the trial court, joining the Sixth and Seventh Circuits in holding the Fourth Amendment excessive force analysis typically used for police officers apprehending an offender must yield to the reality medics face. Quoting from Peete v. Nashville and Davidson County, 486 F.3d 217, 220 (6th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 553 U.S. 1032 (2008), and Thompson v. Cope, 900 F.3d 414 (7th Cir. 2018), the court said:

  • [T]he paramedics “were not acting to enforce the law, deter, or incarcerate.
  • “They were attempting to help… although [in Peete] they badly botched the job according to the complaint.
  • “The plaintiff’s excessive force claim thus looks like a medical malpractice claim rather than a Fourth Amendment or Due Process violation.”
  • “Fourth Amendment restrictions are almost wholly alien to [a] situation, where paramedics are subject to a distinct set of professional standards and goals aimed at responding to medical emergencies.
  • “[In Thompson]sedating the arrestee — who appear[ed] to the paramedic to be suffering from a medical emergency — before taking the arrestee by ambulance to the hospital” did not violate the arrestee’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights.
  • Otherwise, the court observed, paramedics would face a “kind of Catch-22 . . . treat the arrestee or don’t treat him, but face a lawsuit either way.”
  • We agree with these decisions.
  • Buckley concedes that her suicidal and intoxicated state made it necessary for paramedics to place her on a medical hold and transport her to the hospital because she was a danger to herself.
  • But she contends that she was not combative when restrained on the gurney and sedation was therefore medically unnecessary.
  • The contemporaneous ambulance run report states that Buckley “attempted kicking, biting and head butting [the paramedics] while she was being removed from her house and taken to the ambulance,” and they sedated her “fearing the patient would injure herself fighting the restraints or get out of lower seat belts and kick responders.”
  • It was not objectively unreasonable for paramedics to administer medical aid to an intoxicated, suicidal, semi-conscious woman who needed medical intervention.
  • The “reasonableness inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one” and looks only to whether the official’s actions were “objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”

Here is a copy of the decision.

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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