Sixth Circuit Dismisses Civil Rights Claims in Mistaken Death Case

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that EMS personnel who mistakenly pronounced a disabled woman dead, cannot be held liable for her subsequent death under a civil rights theory, despite the fact their error delayed life-saving treatment. The case involves the death of 20-year-old Timesha Beauchamp in Southfield, Michigan.

On August 23, 2020, Beauchamp, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was unresponsive prompting her mother to call 911. Personnel from the Southfield Fire Department responded. The following facts are quoted from the Sixth Circuit decision:

  • Minutes later, the four emergency medical personnel who are defendants-appellees in this case—Michael Storms, Scott Rickard, Phillip Mulligan, and Jake Kroll arrived.
  • Mulligan and Kroll attempted CPR and ventilation using a bag valve mask.
  • After about half an hour, the First Responders discontinued efforts to resuscitate Beauchamp and declared her dead.
  • They also called a doctor to obtain permission to stop trying to resuscitate Beauchamp, although they had already stopped resuscitative efforts more than five minutes before receiving such permission.
  • However, numerous medical indicators still showed that Beauchamp was not dead—her capnography indicated continued respiration, her cardiac monitor showed electrical activity, and her breathing and pulse were perceptible to her family members.
  • Beauchamp’s family members informed the First Responders of their observations suggesting that Beauchamp was still alive.
  • In response, Storms and Kroll took another look at Beauchamp. The medical device they used continued to show organized electrical activity suggesting that Beauchamp was alive.
  • Nevertheless, Storms and Kroll stuck to their conclusion that Beauchamp was dead, explaining the signs of life as reactions to medication.
  • As the First Responders were leaving, City police officers, whom the First Responders had called once they concluded Beauchamp was dead, informed the First Responders that the family had seen Beauchamp gasp for air.
  • So the First Responders returned a third time, repeated their explanation that Beauchamp’s chest movement was a result of medication, and continued to insist that Beauchamp was dead.
  • A City police officer called the Oakland County Medical Examiner to inform them of Beauchamp’s death.
  • The officer instructed Lattimore to call a funeral home to pick up Beauchamp’s body. Lattimore called the James H. Cole Funeral Home.
  • A Funeral Home employee who arrived to take Beauchamp’s body asked Lattimore whether Beauchamp really was dead, as her chest was still visibly moving.
  • Lattimore relayed the First Responders’ explanation that Beauchamp’s chest would still move due to medication but that Beauchamp was in fact dead.
  • The employee wrapped Beauchamp in a sheet, placed her into a body bag, and removed Beauchamp from the home.
  • About fifteen minutes later, the body bag containing Beauchamp arrived at the Funeral Home, and the embalmer unzipped it.
  • The embalmer saw Beauchamp gasping for air with her eyes open and her chest moving up and down.
  • The embalmer called 911, and emergency medical personnel (not the First Responders) took Beauchamp to the hospital.
  • At the hospital, doctors determined that Beauchamp was alive but had suffered an anoxic brain injury. Beauchamp remained on a ventilator in a vegetative state until she died about six weeks later.

Beauchamp’s estate filed suit against Southfield and the four first responders alleging a violation of her federal civil rights. Here is more on the filing of that suit including a copy of the complaint. The original complaint did not allege negligence, gross negligence, or wrongful death, which are state-law based tort claims. However, the estate filed an amended complaint that added allegations of gross negligence and willful and wanton misconduct. The complaint was amended a third time to allege a due process based state-created danger theory (an alternative civil rights based theory).

The trial court concluded the estate failed to establish a civil rights violation, and declined to consider the additional state law claims. Rather than refile the suit in state court on the tort-based theories, the estate opted to appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

Quoting from the ruling (with citations and quotation marks removed to facilitate easier reading):

  • Generally, there is no constitutional right to adequate medical care for individuals who are not in the custody of the state.
  • However, there is an exception to that general principle where a state actor’s affirmative act either creates or increases a risk that the decedent would be exposed to private acts of violence, or cuts off private sources of rescue without providing an adequate alternative.
  • Linden [the personal representative of Beauchamp’s estate] argues that the Second Amended Complaint states a claim against the First Responders under both avenues.
  • The First Responders argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity.
  • Qualified immunity shields governmental officials from monetary damages as long as their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
  • Linden argues that the First Responders’ affirmative acts of repeatedly insisting that Beauchamp was dead caused Beauchamp to suffer a private act of violence when a Funeral Home employee began processing her presumed-dead body for routine funeral preparations, including putting her into a body bag and transporting her to the Funeral Home.
  • We have addressed a substantive due process claim based on emergency personnel’s erroneous determination that someone was dead only once, in our unpublished decision in Willis v. Charter Twp. of Emmett.
  • In Willis, first responders assumed that the driver of a pickup truck that had landed upside down in the middle of the highway after an accident was dead because he did not have a detectable pulse in his arm, even though a witness may have told them the driver was still breathing.
  • Paramedics did not offer the driver aid based on the firefighters’ instruction that the driver was dead. Id. Instead, they placed a sheet over the cab of the pickup, which was eventually attached to a tow truck so that the driver’s body could be removed.
  • At that point, someone noticed that the driver was still breathing, and he was immediately taken to the hospital, where he died shortly afterward. We held that these facts did not support a constitutional claim based on a state-created danger because the firefighters did not affirmatively act to expose the driver to private acts of violence.
  • In doing so, we rejected the argument that the extended period of time during which the driver was left untreated and the jostling of the cab of his pickup when it was secured for towing amount to private acts of violence.
  • Willis held that leaving an injured driver untreated based on the mistaken belief that the driver was dead, which in turn led to the jostling of the pickup truck to secure it for towing so that responders could extricate the presumed-dead body from the wreckage, was insufficient to state a claim under the state-created danger doctrine because the decedent was not exposed to a private act of violence.
  • So it is hard to see how it could be clearly established that the First Responders exposed Beauchamp to a private act of violence when they mistakenly believed she was dead and left her in her family’s care to be processed for routine funeral proceedings, which included the Funeral Home employee’s act of putting Beauchamp’s presumed-dead body into a body bag to transport her to a funeral home.
  • In any event, it is Linden, not the First Responders, who bears the burden of pointing to legal authority that clearly shows that the constitutional question in this case should be resolved in his favor.
  • We therefore affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the First Responders as to Linden’s constitutional claims on the alternative ground of qualified immunity, without deciding whether the First Responders’ conduct violated Beauchamp’s constitutional rights.

To break down this legal slight-of-hand, the court concluded that while the actions of the firefighters may not have met the appropriate standard of care, and while theoretically they may even have violated Beauchamp’s civil rights, they have qualified immunity from civil rights claims. That qualified immunity can only be lost if the first responders violated a “clearly established” right. The estate failed to establish that Beauchamp had a clearly established right that was violated.

The court did not condone what occurred or say the city and the firefighters are immune from all liability for what occurred (unfortunately you may have seen some headlines that suggest that). The Sixth Circuit is simply saying, it is not a federal civil rights case.

Here is a copy of the decision.

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.

Check Also

Ohio Family Accused of Stealing from EMS Provider

Six members of an Ohio family are facing charges that they stole $75,000 worth of fuel from an EMS provider in Ohio. Tony Wilson, his wife Malea, sons Christopher and Tony Lee, daughter Tiffany Wiseman, and her husband Joshua Wiseman have been charged with stealing from Patriot EMS, located in Ironton, Ohio.

Noose Assault Prompts Suit Against Washington State Fire District

An African American recruit firefighter in Washington state who had a noose placed around his neck by a fellow recruit, has filed suit against the department, several officers and the offender. Elijah Page filed suit in federal court against the Clark County Fire District 6, three chief officers, a captain and former recruit John Erickson.