Summary of Selected Cases Involving Excessive Force Used by Police and EMTs in Responding to Persons with Seizures
Updated: August 2008
The following summarizes some selected cases pending and resolved, involving this issue that have come to the attention of the Epilepsy Foundation. Documents filed in most of these cases may be obtained by sending a request to the Jeanne A. Carpenter Epilepsy Legal Defense Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wells v. County of Stanislaus(E.D. Ca. filed 8/05/08)
Summary: The parents of a man with epilepsy who died after being restrained and tasered by Stanislaus County (California) Sherriff’s Department deputies filed a lawsuit against the County alleging that the deputies used excessive force in violation of the man’s constitutional rights. The action also names as a defendant Taser International, the manufacturer of Tasers, and alleges that the Taser device used by the police was unsafe and that the company violated its legal duty to warn about the danger to the public posed by the device.
James Edward Wells died on August 15, 2007, allegedly as a result of being tasered and restrained by deputies, who were responding to a call that Mr. Wells had attempted to force his way into a neighbor’s home.The suit alleges the following facts: according to witness statements, Mr. Wells had experienced a tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure, and, as a result of post-seizure confusion (which typically follows such seizures), wandered from his home and attempted to enter his neighbor’s house. When police officers arrived, Mr. Wells approached them in a non-threatening manner; because of his impaired consciousness, he was not responsive to their commands to stop.In an effort to subdue Mr. Wells, police officers struck him in the throat and attempted to wrestle him to the ground. When these efforts were unsuccessful, one officer tasered him several times, and multiple officers pepper sprayed him in the face and struck him on the legs with batons.When Mr. Wells fell to the ground, he was face-down; police handcuffed him behind the back, applying pressure to his back with their bodies.A short time later, Mr. Wells stopped breathing and died. It is further alleged that officers delayed in providing Mr. Wells CPR.
The action alleges that the deputies violated Mr. Wells’s constitutional rights by using excessive or deadly force and seeks compensatory and punitive damages.The action also claims that the Sherriff’s department was at fault because of its failure to properly train and supervise its officers regarding the use of force (including restraint) when confronting persons experiencing seizures. Based on the facts alleged, it appears that, due to the lack of such training, the deputies assumed that Mr. Wells was intentionally combative and possibly high on illicit drugs.
Status: Action is pending.Rivas v. City of Passaic, 365 F. 3d 181 (3rd Cir. 2004)
Summary: This action alleges following facts: The decedent's wife (Mrs. Rivas) directed one of her children to call 911 after she awoke to find her husband "shaking uncontrollably." When the EMTs arrived at the home, Mrs. Rivas informed them that her husband was convulsing and that he had a history of seizures. EMTs asserted that the decedent attacked them upon their arrival, but Mrs. Rivas stated that her husband was "ashen" and walking around "like a zombie."
A struggle with the decedent occurred, and police were called to intervene. This struggle continued for several minutes, with the officers positioned on the decedent's back. The decedent was handcuffed and placed face down on a stretcher. One of the straps on the stretcher broke during this process, which caused the decedent to slip out and fall down some stairs. The officers testified that the decedent became aggressive at the bottom of the stairs, which caused them to use forcible restraint once again. When the paramedics arrived shortly thereafter, they instructed the police to turn the decedent onto his back, at which point it was discovered that he was no longer breathing and did not have a pulse. Attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful, and Mr. Rivas died on his way to the hospital.
Status: The Court of Appeals, affirming the lower court’s denial of summary judgment to the defendants, held that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether EMTs deprived Mr. Rivas of his right to be free from a state-created danger, and that that there are also issues of fact as to whether police officers used excessive force to subdue Mr. Rivas. The court also ruled that if EMTs violated Mr. Rivas' constitutional rights, they would not be entitled to qualified immunity.
Closed CasesVillanueva v. Township of Bloomfield, (NJ Superior Court, filed May 14, 2003), Docket No. ESX-L-3286-03 (settled 2008)
Summary: As alleged in this lawsuit, Santiago Villanueva, 35, a native of the Dominican Republic, who lived in New York, was experiencing a seizure on April 16, 2002, when he was arrested at the garment factory where he worked. According to Bloomfield, NJ police reports, officers and emergency medical technicians responding to a 911 call deemed Villanueva combative and, at times, unresponsive to simple verbal commands – common signs of certain types of seizures. The responders acknowledge using some force to bring Mr. Villanueva under control. The police restrained Mr. Villanueva by placing pressure on his back and neck, despite insistence by his co-workers that such force was unnecessary. Mr. Villanueva stopped breathing at one point during the incident, but started again before reaching the Columbus Hospital in Newark, where he died. The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be homicide by mechanical asphyxiation.
Status: The case was settled for $2 million.Gates v. Broomfield County, et al.(D. Co. settled 2008)
Summary: A 42-year old man died when he was restrained in his home by paramedics and police officers (Broomfield County, outside of Denver). The responders were called to the home by the man's wife, who witnessed her husband having a complex partial seizure.According to the complaint: Responders attempted to prevent the man from leaving his bedroom, forcing him onto his bed face down. At least one responder applied pressure with a knee to the man's back to restrain him and they handcuffed him behind the back at the same time. They also administered medication to arrest the seizure (Versed and Benedryl). Responders transported the man to the ER, at which time he was unconscious.He was placed on life support for 36 hours. The treating doctor indicated that the man was suffocated.A federal action was filed in Denver in September 2006 and defendants answered.The complaint sought compensatory, punitive, and deterrence damages and attorneys’ fees.
Status: Case was settled.Amount of settlement is confidential.Orehek v. Janusz (D. Co., settled 2006)
Summary: Plaintiff alleged that the defendantsviolated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Constitution. He further alleged that the defendants violated Colorado State law by committing assault and battery against him. The events giving rise to these allegations stemmed from the response of the police and EMT personnel after they were called to the scene by the plaintiff's fiancé. When these parties arrived, the plaintiff was experiencing petit-mal seizures and was in a post-ictal state of confusion.
The plaintiff alleged that the police and EMTs were aware that he had just had a seizure and yet they still used force to restrain him when he attempted to walk out of the house to speak with his mother. The plaintiff never made any violent gestures toward either party; however, he allegedly was continually struck and eventually handcuffed and placed in custody. As a result of this encounter, the plaintiff alleges that he suffered emotional distress and aggravation of both his epilepsy and an existing shoulder problem.
Status: The plaintiff sought compensatory and consequential damages (for emotional distress, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and pain and suffering), punitive damages, trial and attorneys' fees, pre- and post-judgment interest, and any other legal or equitable relief that the court deems appropriate. The parties entered into a settlement.Jardine v. City of Tempe(Arizona Superior Court, concluded 2005)
Summary: John Brooking Jardine, a 37 year-old-student at Arizona State University, died in Tempe, AZ, on March 30, 1999, following a seizure on campus. Representatives of the plaintiff's estate filed suit in Arizona Superior Court, alleging that Mr. Jardine's death was caused by EMTs' use of excessive and inappropriate force. The decedent experienced a seizure in his college class, and his fellow students called 911.
At trial, evidence supporting the following facts was presented: When the EMTs arrived on the scene just after the seizure halted (knowing that the call had been dispatched as a seizure), Mr. Jardine was confused (common soon after a seizure), and apparently did not comply with EMTs’ orders to remain seated. EMTs, misinterpreting behaviors associated with his seizure as combative, forcibly restrained Mr. Jardine while he was handcuffed behind his back. The EMTs forced Mr. Jardine to the floor, applying pressure to his shoulders, arms and legs to immobilize him, and strapped him face-down (prone) on a gurney. He was still handcuffed. En route to the hospital, the EMTs noted that Mr. Jardine had stopped breathing and had no pulse. The handcuffs could not be unlocked, as the key remained with a security guard on campus. Mr. Jardine was pronounced dead by emergency room physicians shortly after his arrival at the hospital. Attorneys representing Mr. Jardine’s family argued and presented expert testimony that this prone restraint caused Mr. Jardine to die of asphyxiation.
Status: The suit sought monetary damages and alleged that Mr. Jardine was subjected to unreasonable and excessive force, that his civil rights were violated and that he was denied proper medical care. In 2003, one of the defendants, Arizona State University, reached a settlement with the family in which the University agreed to pay $800,000 and establish a scholarship for students with disabilities. On November 17, 2005, following a trial involving other defendants, a jury issued a verdict finding that the EMTs involved were not responsible for the death of Mr. Jardine.Stetter v. Village of Hanover Park(N.D. IL, settled 2000)
Summary: Representatives of the plaintiff's estate filed suit alleging that the defendants violated the decedent's constitutional rights when using excessive force when responding to a 911 call for assistance. The complaint alleged as follows: The decedent, who was in a postictal state at the time, was forcibly restrained and handcuffed by police and EMTs before receiving any type of medical care. Pressure was applied to the decedent's neck, back, and shoulders, and he was placed face-down on a gurney. He was found to be without a pulse while still in the home, but no attempt to resuscitate the decedent was made before the EMTs reached the ambulance.
Status: The parties settled the matter, with the defendant making a large payment to the family.Case of Joaquin "Jack" Gonzales (settled 2000)
Summary: Mr. Gonzales died in has jail cell on November 20, 1999. Shortly after midnight on that date, Mr. Gonzales' friends had called 911 for an ambulance because of a series of seizures he was having. Sheriff's deputies responded to the call, put Gonzales in a straitjacket, and took him to jail.
While in jail, Gonzales was allegedly shackled to the upper bunk in his cell, placed face down on the lower bunk, and subjected to knee pressure on his back causing positional asphyxiation. According to published reports, New Mexico State Police investigation records show that jail inmates reported hearing banging noises, a jailer's loud yelling, screams, and the sounds of someone gasping for air. The inmates also reported hearing the repeated cry of "I can't breathe," and then silence.
Gonzales, an artist with two young sons, had developed epilepsy following a football-related head injury sustained in high school.
Status: Taos County, NM, authorities agreed to settle this wrongful-death lawsuit for $1.25 million.
Parks v. Darby Borough(E.D. PA, settled 2000)
The plaintiff filed suit against police and emergency medical personnel, claiming that he was improperly restrained during a seizure and that he suffered nerve damage as a result.
Status: The case settled, with the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeastern Pennsylvania agreeing to provide training and resources on how to respond to seizures to the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.The Commission agreed to require police training schools to show the Epilepsy Foundation’s “Take Another Look” video to each new recruit class, and to establish a three-hour mandatory in-service training curriculum (using certified trainers) that instructs on how to identify and appropriately respond to persons who are experiencing a seizure.Frazell v. Flanigan, 102 F.3d 877 (7th Cir. 1996)
Summary: The plaintiff and his two coworkers were pulled over by the defendant police officer because the plaintiff's taillights were not working. The officer alleged that the vehicle had been swerving, and believed he smelled alcohol on the plaintiff's breath; therefore, he administered a field sobriety test, which the plaintiff failed. The plaintiff was then placed under arrest and seated in the defendant's squad car, at which point he began to feel "dizzy." His memory of the ensuing events is vague, but his coworkers (who remained in the vehicle) testified that they saw the plaintiff restrained on the ground with his hands cuffed.They also testified that several officers were striking him with a club and pinning him down with their knees and feet. They also stated that they informed the arresting officers of the plaintiff's history of epilepsy, but that the officers responded by threatening them with similar treatment.Mr. Frazell sustained multiple cuts, bruises and abrasions to his head, back and chest, and washospitalized for three days.
The officers maintained that their actions were triggered by violence and resistance on the part of the plaintiff, and that he had only minor cuts at the time he was placed in the paddy wagon for transport to the hospital (implying that the plaintiff's most severe injuries were self-inflicted in the paddy wagon). At trial, two physicians who had treated the plaintiff in the years prior to the incident testified that they believed the plaintiff had experienced a seizure during the traffic stop, and that its duration was extended by the actions of the police officers.
Status: The plaintiff was awarded judgment (and a jury award of $160,000) on his claims that his constitutional rights were violated through the use of excessive force, and the court of appeals affirmed. In its decision, the court of appeals stated that the standard of review in a claim of Fourth Amendment violation is whether the actions of the officers could be considered "objectively reasonable." In the instant case, the court found that a jury could have concluded that the defendant acted unreasonably by continuing to strike the plaintiff after he had been restrained.