Court Dismisses OKC Firefighters From Civil Rights Suit by Family of Patient Who Died

The US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has dismissed claims against four Oklahoma City firefighters who were accused of violating a patient’s civil rights by restraining him in 2019. Charles Lamar Vanlandingham died after being restrained by first responders, including firefighters.

The facts were explained by the court as follows:

  • In the early morning hours of September 15, 2019, Mr. Vanlandingham experienced a seizure, and a friend made a 9-1-1 emergency call for medical assistance.
  • The first responders to arrive were paramedics from an ambulance service (Defendant AMR), followed a short time later by Firefighters.
  • The paramedics took “charge of the scene because the call was for a medical emergency.”
  • When the responders arrived, Mr. Vanlandingham’s seizure was subsiding, and “he was in a postictal state.”
  • As a result, “Mr. Vanlandingham was not aware of his surroundings.”
  • Contrary to “common medical procedures [and] protocol standards,” the paramedics and Firefighters tackled Mr. Vanlandingham, and Firefighters “proceeded to pin Mr. Vanlandingham to the ground facedown.”
  • Acting together while Mr. Vanlandingham was lying in this position with his hands behind his back, Firefighters “held Mr. Vanlandingham’s legs, sat on his lower back while pushing down on Mr. Vanlandingham’s upper back, placed a knee on Mr. Vanlandingham’s shoulder and neck area, and used their hands to press down on the back of Mr. Vanlandingham’s head.”
  • After Mr. Vanlandingham was pinned down, a police officer (Defendant Brandon Lee) arrived, and Firefighters asked the officer to handcuff Mr. Vanlandingham, even though he was experiencing a medical emergency and “had committed no crime.”
  • “Officer Lee proceeded to place handcuffs on Mr. Vanlandingham, further restraining Mr. Vanlandingham’s movement.”
  • During the incident, “Mr. Vanlandingham repeatedly screamed out in pain and yelled for help while he suffered under the weight of [Firefighters] as they continued to pin down Mr. Vanlandingham’s legs, hips, back, and head,” and one of them responded by yelling at Mr. Vanlandingham to “quit” and “hold still” and saying, “you’re not going to buck me off.
  • Mr. Vanlandingham’s face down position with hands cuffed behind his back and Firefighters weighing him down lasted over ten minutes and restricted Mr. Vanlandingham’s airflow.
  • The paramedics did nothing to alleviate the airflow restriction but, instead, made the situation more dangerous by administering a sedative drug to Mr. Vanlandingham.
  • The physical restrictions combined with the effect of the sedative caused Mr. Vanlandingham to lose consciousness and stop breathing.
  • He “died on the floor of his friend’s home without ever being transported to a hospital.”
  • Firefighters “did not get off Mr. Vanlandingham’s back until after he stopped breathing” and “did nothing to maintain or monitor Mr. Vanlandingham’s airway and breathing during his facedown restraint.”

Vanlandingham’s family sued the city, four firefighters, a police officer, and AMR alleging the restraint and subsequent death violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, actionable under 42 USC § 1983. Incidentally, we have been seeing a dramatic increase in these types of cases since 2016. That is not to suggest that there are more incidents like these occurring, rather that attorneys, at the behest of clients, are bringing more § 1983 actions against fire departments under strikingly similar circumstances. I have 62 documented civil suits of similar facts, 9 prior to 2016, and 53 since 2016.

The court rejected Vanlandingham’s claims, concluding first that complaint failed to allege a Fourth Amendment violation by the firefighters, and second that they were entitled to qualified immunity. Quoting from the decision:

  • The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unlawful seizures and, as pertinent here, guarantees rights not to be detained without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and not to be subjected to excessive force.
  • Plaintiff claims Firefighters lacked any basis to restrain Mr. Vanlandingham and they used excessive force against him during the restraint.
  • In argument, Plaintiff seems to concede that the factual and legal premise of these claims is that Firefighters acted in a law enforcement role during their encounter with the decedent.
  • Although he argues that “the finding of an unlawful seizure, or other constitutional violation, does not turn on the employment of the state actor doing the seizing,” Plaintiff relies on case law holding that the Fourth Amendment applies where the state actor is acting in a law enforcement capacity.
  • The Court accepts Plaintiff’s position as stated in his brief that conduct in “a law-enforcement capacity rather than an emergency-medical-response capacity” is required to implicate the Fourth Amendment.
  • Plaintiff argues that, rather than rendering aid to Mr. Vanlandingham in a manner that would be “reasonable actions of firefighters in an emergency-medical-response capacity, Defendant Firefighters continued to sit on and restrain Mr. Vanlandingham in a prone position waiting for law enforcement to arrive.”
  • Accepting the factual allegations of the … Complaint and viewing them in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to allege sufficient facts to show a Fourth Amendment violation by Firefighters.
  • Therefore, the Court finds that the … Complaint fails to state a plausible § 1983 claim of unlawful seizure or excessive force against Firefighters.
  • If Plaintiff had alleged the violation of a constitutional right, the Court would also find that Plaintiff’s allegations are insufficient to overcome Firefighters’ defense of qualified immunity because the Fourth Amendment right asserted was not clearly established in September 2019.
  • Plaintiff identifies no Supreme Court, Tenth Circuit, or other federal court decision that would have made clear to a reasonable person in Firefighters’ positions that their conduct toward Mr. Vanlandingham violated the Fourth Amendment.

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.
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