Federal Claims Dismissed Against Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

A wrongful death lawsuit filed against Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has been remanded back to state court by the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida after the federal claims were dismissed. The lawsuit was filed last year by the family of Gustavo Beaz, who died in 2019.

The suit accused Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and three firefighter-paramedics of negligence and deliberate-indifference arising for their slow response and failure to initiate medical treatment. The suit claimed the firefighters were assigned to a “retirement station” notoriously slow to respond “particularly at night when sleep is interrupted.” It further claimed personnel failed to initiate resuscitation efforts in violation of their own protocols, instead pronouncing Beaz “DOA” despite a pulse documented on their EKG. Here is more on the original filing including a copy of the complaint.

Miami-Dade had the case removed to federal court because it included two federal civil rights claims brought under 42 USC §1983. In dismissing those claims, the court said:

  • Under Section 1983, local governments can be sued for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief for alleged unconstitutional action pursuant to an officially adopted policy, ordinance, regulation, or decision; or a governmental custom which “has not received formal approval through … official decisionmaking [sic] channels.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc.Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978)
  • However, “[t]here can be no policy-based liability or supervisory liability when there is no underlying constitutional violation.”
  • The Court finds that, in addition to failing to plead a violation of Mr. Beaz’s constitutional rights, Plaintiffs also fail to adequately plead the existence of: (1) an “officially adopted policy,” or (2) a custom which would provide the basis for the County’s liability under Section 1983.
  • Plaintiffs allege … that the County and Miami-Dade Fire maintained customs of failing to monitor employee compliance with the law, required response times, medical protocols and procedures, and that there was a custom of employees committing constitutional violations, falsifying arrival times, and failing to provide meaningful medical services.
  • But Plaintiffs neglect to support such blanket assertions with citation to any facts or incidents other than the unfortunate events involving Mr. Beaz.
  • Further, Plaintiffs continually refer in general to a “policy statement, regulation or decision … or … practice and custom” without any detail or factual predicate throughout their Amended Complaint.
  • Even under a liberal notice pleading standard, “labels and conclusions” alone are insufficient to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
  • Plaintiffs cannot manufacture a County or Miami-Dade Fire custom based on broad-sweeping conclusory statements without citation to any supporting documents or other specific examples indicative of such a custom.
  • Thus, based on the foregoing, the Court grants Defendants’ Motion as to Count I, and dismisses that claim with prejudice.
  • Count II of Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint raises a claim under Section 1983 against Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon as individuals. Plaintiffs allege Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon “caused Mr. Beaz to be subjected to the deprivation of rights, privileges and immunities secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
  • Further, Plaintiffs allege the defendant paramedics “acted with reckless disregard by denying aid to someone they knew to be alive.”
  • In response, Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon assert the affirmative defense of qualified immunity.
  • The defense of qualified immunity “shields a government official from liability unless he violates ‘clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’ An officer asserting a qualified-immunity defense bears the initial burden of showing that he was ‘acting within his discretionary authority.'”
  • The qualified immunity analysis begins with Plaintiffs’ assertion that the defendant paramedics “were all acting in the course and scope of their employment with [Miami-Dade Fire] during all times relevant to this amended Complaint.”
  • Plaintiffs allege “reckless disregard and/or deliberate indifference” by the defendant paramedics such that they deprived Mr. Beaz of his substantive due process rights.
  • Plaintiffs contend the defendant paramedics knew Mr. Beaz was alive when they allegedly failed to render aid.
  • Although undeniably tragic, the timeline as pled does not support Plaintiffs’ claim against the defendant paramedics.
  • The events of the early morning of April 2, 2019 as described by the Plaintiffs involve quick decisions made during an emergency call over the course of minutes, if not seconds.
  • Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon arrived at Mr. Beaz’s home at 2:13:25 AM.
  • Finding the door unlocked, the paramedics made contact with Mr. Beaz at 2:15 AM.
  • Mr. Beaz was sitting in a chair unresponsive, pulseless and cold to the touch, with foam on his nose and mouth.
  • While one of the defendant paramedics “was in the process of pulling life-saving equipment out of the vehicle along with a stretcher” Mr. Beaz was pronounced dead.
  • According to the Amended Complaint, the defendant paramedics then entered the home with a 3-lead EKG machine and connected Mr. Beaz to the machine.
  • Although Plaintiffs assert the decisions and actions of the defendant paramedics at Mr. Beaz’s home were inconsistent with “industry standards,” the actions-or inactions-of Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon as pled do not rise to the level of constitutionally infirm conduct.
  • In a non-custodial setting, “‘deliberate indifference’ is insufficient to constitute a due-process violation.”
  • Additionally, even if the defendant paramedics did not follow Protocol 27, such a violation, as pled, does not indicate the defendant paramedics acted with a purpose to cause harm in a manner which shocks the conscience, as is required in emergency situations.
  • Consequently, a plaintiff can establish a violation of substantive due process rights only by demonstrating an official’s conduct was “arbitrary or conscience shocking in a constitutional sense.”
  • However, in scenarios such as emergency rescues “[w]hen split-second judgments are required, an official’s conduct will shock the conscience only when it stems from a ‘purpose to cause harm.'”
  • Although a plaintiff can demonstrate a violation of a substantive due process right by pleading facts alleging official conduct was “arbitrary or conscience shocking in a constitutional sense,” Plaintiffs have not set forth sufficient facts to meet their burden.
  • Defendants West, Ault, and Weldon may have performed their “duties poorly,” but such poor performance is protected by qualified immunity.

The court declined to hear the state law negligence claims, and remanded the case back to 11th Judicial Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County. 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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