Mother Sues Houston Police and Firefighters Over Son’s Death

A mother whose son died after being tased and arrested by Houston police, has filed suit against the city, the police officers involved in the apprehension, and five city firefighters. Meghan Sonnier Simms, the mother of Jermaine K. Sonnier, filed suit yesterday in US District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

The suit alleges violations of Sonnier’s Fourteenth Amendment rights under deliberate indifference to medical needs and failure to train and/or supervise theories; excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; negligence; and wrongful death.

The facts as alleged in the complaint are as follows:

  • On or about June 16, 2021, at approximately 1900 hours, Sonnier was with a female friend, when HPD officers pursued him on foot, for reasons unknown to Sonnier.
  • At all times, Sonnier was unarmed and was not threatening or trying to harm the officers or any other person.
  • The HPD officers, without a need to do so, chased Sonnier for approximately one minute before catching up with him.
  • The Defendant Officers, including Defendant Rivers, viciously tackled Sonnier to the ground and placed him into a prone position, although Sonnier was not resisting, nor had he committed a penal offense in the presence of the officers.
  • Defendant Rivers, without attempting to de-escalate the situation, immediately resorted to using force by tasing Sonnier in the chest, which is known to be painful, can result in death, and is prohibited.
  • At no time did the other Defendant Officers attempt to stop Defendant Rivers.
  • Defendant Rivers continued to cycle the taser even though Sonnier was outnumbered, was not resisting, and was not a danger to himself or anyone else.
  • There were at least four officers on top of Sonnier as he lay on the ground in a prone position. It was difficult for Sonnier to put his hands behind his back or breathe because he was in a prone position and the r [sic] Defendant Officers were on top of him.
  • Sonnier repeatedly stated “I didn’t do nothing” but one of the Defendant Officer’s responded, after Sonnier had been tased, “put your hands behind your back or I’m going to hit you.”
  • Sonnier was handcuffed, hands behind his back and was then lying on the ground, prone, on his stomach.
  • Sonnier was clearly in medical distress. When the Defendant Officers attempted to stand Sonnier up, he immediately slumped over, his legs buckled, and he could not stand up which led to a barrage of yelling at Sonnier from the Defendant Officers.
  • The Defendant Officers dragged and then carried a distressed Sonnier to the patrol car and pushed him into the back seat without checking on him.
  • Just before being pushed into the patrol car, pleading for help, Sonnier shouted out “I can’t fucking breathe” to which a Defendant Officer responded, “Well get in the car.” The Defendant Officers failed to summon help.
  • Approximately ten minutes after Sonnier was put into the patrol car, a Defendant Officer radioed that they “needed extra D” and that the “suspect was complaining of chest pain and arm pain.”
  • Approximately twenty minutes after Sonnier was tackled, the Fire Department Officers arrived, and he was pulled out of the patrol car and left on the ground.
  • Five (5) minutes later Sonnier began loudly screaming and groaning for several
  • minutes. Then he was carried onto a gurney. A Defendant Officer sarcastically stated that it would be easier on your heart if you comply and stop moving even though Sonnier’s movements were minimal or involuntary.
  • Sonnier was put into the ambulance approximately thirty (30) minutes after he was tased by Defendant Rivers.
  • Even though Sonnier was clearly in medical distress, based on the information they received from the HPD Defendant Officers, the Fire Department Defendants Officers decided not to transport Sonnier to the hospital with a paramedic present in the ambulance.
  • The female Defendant from the Fire Department stated that she felt badly about that decision.
  • Approximately forty-six (46) minutes after Sonnier was violently taken to the ground, tased, and placed in a prone position with the weight of the officers on top of him, the Defendant Officers were informed that Sonnier went into cardiac arrest.
  • Approximately one (1) hour and ten (10) minutes after he was violently taken to the ground, tased, and placed in a prone position with the weight of the officers on top of him, Sonnier was pronounced dead.
  • The Defendant Officers were told that he died of cardiac arrest.
  • One of the supervisors who came to the scene stated that Sonnier suffered from aggravated delirium.
  • In attempt to cover up their failures after the incident, false statements such as the following were made: “He started kicking himself out of the car.” “He started fighting with us, so we dragged him to the car.” “I was about to start giving it to him.” “He was playing possum.” “I manhandled him down” and that’s when Jerry came up and tased him.
  • The Defendant Officers had no regard for the fact that Sonnier had been tased in the chest and then complained of chest pains.
  • The Defendant Officers took no action to provide Sonnier with aid while waiting for medical assistance, which should have been immediate but was not.

The complaint does not identify any of the firefighters by name, but indicates they will be named once their identifies are discovered. Sonnier Simms is seeking actual and punitive damages, plus interest, costs and attorneys’ fees. She sues on her own behalf, on behalf of Sonnier’s estate, and on behalf of Sonnier’s minor son identified as J.S. The mother of J.S., Gabriela Lavine, is also identified in the complaint as a “Next Friend” of J.S., and co-plaintiff.

By the way, in the past week, I entered six similar cases into the database, where fire departments and/or firefighters were sued for their lack of action when assisting police. This has quickly become a major area of liability that – quite frankly – did not used to exist. Prior to 2016, my database has 8 suits naming firefighters or fire departments at incidents while assisting police. The cases go back into the 1800s. From 2016 to today I have 73 cases. Assisting police officers at the scenes of arrests has become a high-risk activity. Firefighters/medics need to recognize this, and ensure their behavior and service delivery reflects that understanding.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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