11th Circuit Upholds Ruling in Favor of Miami Dade Fire Rescue and Three Firefighters

The US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling in favor of the Miami Dade Fire Rescue and three firefighter paramedics accused of negligence and deliberate indifference in their response to a medical run in 2019. Diana Cluff and Jacqueline Beaz filed suit accusing the medics of delaying their response, falsifying reports, and failing to attempt to resuscitate their father, Gustavo Beaz.

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.

The district court dismissed the federal constitutional claims. Here is more on that ruling. That prompted the appeal to the 11th Circuit. In upholding the trial court ruling, the Court of Appeals held:

  • The claims against the paramedics are insufficient to overcome their qualified immunity.
  • If they acted within their discretionary authority (which Cluff concedes when she notes that they were “all acting in the course and scope of their employment” during “all times relevant to” the complaint), the burden is on Cluff to overcome qualified immunity.
  • She must show that the paramedics violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.  
  • No such right existed.
  • In this context, first responders were “under no affirmative constitutional duty to provide any particular type of emergency medical service.”
  • And the “fact that the County undertook to provide some ambulance service did not give rise to a constitutional duty to perform the particular service desired” by a plaintiff.
  • Even if a cognizable right existed, there is an independent reason to dismiss Cluff’s claim.
  • She alleges throughout the complaint that the paramedics acted with “reckless disregard and/or deliberate indifference.”
  • But “deliberate indifference is insufficient to constitute a due-process violation” in these circumstances.
  • And “a negligent or grossly negligent rescue attempt by a state employee is not the equivalent
  • of a deprivation of right to life without due process of law.”
  • Conduct that is “reckless” also does not “rise to the level of culpability necessary to state a violation” of Beaz’s substantive due process rights.
  • Reckless or deliberately indifferent behavior is not enough to defeat this claim of qualified immunity.
  • Because there is a route around qualified immunity if an official acted with a “purpose to cause harm,” Cluff asks us to read her allegation that paramedics are liable for Beaz’s death “because they created or enhanced the danger to his life” as a claim that they acted with a purpose to cause harm.
  • But her claims are not enough to satisfy the standard under our caselaw. We held in Waldron that a police officer who prevented bystanders from performing CPR on a dying victim may have been motivated by a purpose to cause harm.
  • But here, there is no factual basis in Cluff’s complaint as pled that supports an allegation of a purpose to cause harm.
  • Accordingly, we hold in line with our past precedent that no actionable constitutional violation defeats the paramedics’ qualified immunity defense.
  • We affirm dismissal of Cluff’s claim.

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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