Court Dismisses Wrongful Death Suit Against DeKalb County Fire Rescue

The US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the mother of a man who died after exhibiting “excited delirium” and being sedated by DeKalb County Fire Rescue. Yvonne West brought suit against DeKalb County, a fire captain, four firefighters, and four police officers over the death of Jamon West in 2019.

As explained by the court:

  • At the time of the relevant incident, West was 42 years old and lived with his mother in DeKalb County.
  • West had a seizure disorder.
  • In August 2019, West suffered a behavioral crisis from his disorder, known in the law enforcement community as “excited delirium.”
  • Symptoms include extreme agitation, hyperactivity, hyperthermia, confusion, and disregard of pain.
  • Plaintiff asserts that it is well-known in the law enforcement and medical communities that using a prone restraint on someone with excited delirium can create a heightened risk of cardiac arrhythmia and asphyxia.
  • During the crisis, West could not control his symptoms and asked his mother to help him. Plaintiff called 911 and told them that her son was having a seizure and that she could not control him.
  • DeKalb County Fire Rescue (“DCFR”) officers responded first.
  • Defendants Winkler and Lakatos discovered West highly agitated, hyperactive, confused, and unable to control his behavior.
  • They physically restrained West in a prone position with his face on the ground.
  • Defendants [Fire Captain] Ditmore, Kelley, Van Wie, and Fleming then arrived and assisted Defendants Winkler and Lakatos in restraining West.
  • In total, four to five DCFR officers were applying force to West’s extremities and back.
  • Plaintiff pleaded with Defendants to stop restraining West and told them that West could not breathe with his face pressed in the grass.
  • Defendant [Fire Captain] Ditmore then instructed Defendant Payne to administer a “chemical restraint” to West, meaning an intramuscular sedative injection.
  • Defendant Payne gave West the maximum dose under DeKalb County policy: 5mg of Haldol and 5mg of Versed.
  • Both Haldol and Versed are central nervous system depressants with known risks of respiratory depression.
  • When DeKalb County Police Department officers arrived, Defendant [Fire Captain] Ditmore asked them to handcuff West. 
  • Defendants Lattimore and Brandon Williams cuffed West’s hands behind his back; they did not use soft restraints, and they kept him in a prone position.
  • Defendants Jones and Paxton arrived while West was in this position and did not intervene. Once West was calm, Defendant Ditmore ordered that the handcuffs be replaced with soft restraints.
  • Then, while Defendants were transporting West, he went into cardiac arrest.
  • Defendants transported West to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for several days until he passed away.
  • The DeKalb County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy and determined that West died of “delayed complications of cardiorespiratory arrest due to probable excited delirium and physical restraint.” (alterations adopted).
  • DeKalb County conducted an internal investigation and determined that Defendants acted in accordance with county policy.
  • In 2021, the DeKalb County District Attorney decided not to press any charges against Defendants.

The suit alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act; 42 U.S.C. § 1983; failure to train; excessive force; deliberate indifference to medical needs; and failure to intervene. The defendants asked the court to dismiss all of the claims based on the statute of limitations, qualified immunity, and the failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted.

US District Court Judge Leigh Martin May dismissed all of West’s claims, ruling as follows:

  • Defendants contend that qualified immunity bars Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims against the individual Defendants.
  • To defeat a § 1983 claim with qualified immunity, a defendant must show that the officials were “acting within the scope of [their] discretionary authority at the time of the alleged misconduct.”
  • If a defendant meets this threshold, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the officials violated a clearly established constitutional right.
  • There is no dispute that Defendants were acting within their discretionary authority.
  • Thus, the Court must evaluate whether Defendants violated West’s clearly established constitutional rights.
  • Plaintiff argues that Defendants violated the clearly established principle that “deadly force cannot be used in non-deadly situations.”
  • West was “highly agitated, hyperactive, confused, and not in control of his behavior.”
  • After the sedative took effect, Defendant Ditmore ordered officers to replace the handcuffs with soft restraints.
  • Although the use of handcuffs and the prone position violated DCFR policy and DOJ guidance, Plaintiff does not point to any clearly established law that would be sufficient to put the officers on notice that this conduct would amount to unconstitutional deadly force.
  • Plaintiff’s allegations that Defendants violated “widely accepted law enforcement practices” and well-known police guidance are not sufficient.
  • Without case law showing that the use of a prone restraint and handcuffs on someone with excited delirium constitutes deadly force, Plaintiff has not proven that Defendants violated clearly established law.
  • Next, Plaintiff contends that Defendants Ditmore and Payne violated West’s constitutional rights with deliberate indifference to his medical needs.
  • Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that these Defendants were aware that West faced increased risk of cardiorespiratory arrest and failed to take preventative measures to avoid that risk.
  • For a deliberate indifference to medical needs claim, Plaintiff must show “that (1) the officer was aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, (2) the officer actually drew that inference, (3) the officer disregarded the risk of serious harm, and (4) the officer’s conduct amounted to more than gross negligence.”
  • Plaintiff must also again prove that Defendants’ actions violated clearly established law, meaning that the law was sufficiently clear that any reasonable official would know that this conduct was unlawful.
  • Plaintiff has not satisfied her burden to show that Defendants violated clearly established law by using the chemical restraints, the prone position, and handcuffs on West while he was suffering from excited delirium.
  • Plaintiff’s last § 1983 claim against individual Defendants states that all individual Defendants observed the improper use of deadly force against West and failed to intervene, which contributed to West’s suffering and death.
  • [A] failure-to-intervene claim requires an underlying constitutional violation.
  • An officer cannot be held liable for failing to stop or intervene when there was no constitutional violation being committed.
  • In accordance with the foregoing, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED. The Clerk is DIRECTED to CLOSE this 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.

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