The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed the family of an obese man to sue two Fort Worth police officers after they allegedly caused him to have a fatal heart attack by throwing him to the ground and using a Taser on him twice while serving a no-knock drug warrant.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision reverses and vacates trial court ruling that dismissed the excessive force claims against the police officers and a failure to train claim against the City of Fort Worth.
The background to the Aug. 9 ruling in Darden v. City of Fort Worth is as follows, according to the decision.
Fort Worth Police officers W.F. Snow and Javier Romero arrested Jermaine Darden, a man who weighed approximately 340 pounds, while executing a no-knock warrant at his home. In arresting Darden, the officers allegedly “threw him to the ground, tased him twice, chocked him, punched and kicked him in the face, and pulled his hands behind his back to handcuff him,” according to the decision.
While only parts of the arrest were captured by police body cameras, witnesses stated that Darden had no time to react before he was thrown to the ground by the officers, that he never made threatening gestures and did not resist arrest.
Throughout the arrest, other people in the house repeatedly yelled: “He’s got asthma” and “He can’t breathe.” Eyewitnesses also testified that Darden told officers he could not breathe. Darden died of a heart attack during the arrest.
Darden’s estate later filed a civil rights case before Fort Worth U.S. District Court Judge John McBryde alleging the police officers used excessive force in arresting Darden and that the city was liable for failing to adequately train its officers.
But McBryde dismissed all of those claims against all of the defendants on summary judgment. He determined that the officers had not violated clearly established law and were entitled to qualified immunity. And because McBryde held the officers had not violated Darden’s constitutional rights, he likewise dismissed the claims against the city. Darden’s estate appealed the rulings to the Fifth Circuit.
In its decision, the Fifth Circuit ruled that McBryde erred in ruling that Darden’s injury did not result directly and only from the use of force based on the fact that he had pre-existing medical conditions that increased his risk of death during the incident. That ruling violated what’s known as the “eggshell skull” rule, which means “the tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him.”
“Darden’s preexisting medical conditions increased his risk of death during a struggle, and in that way, they contributed to his death,” wrote Judge Ed Prado. “However, the evidence suggests that Darden would not have suffered a heart attack and died if the officers had not tased him, forced him onto his stomach, and applied pressure to his back.”
And while the arrest was not completely captured on video, there was enough to satisfy Prado that “based on the evidence in the record, a jury could conclude that no reasonable officer on the scene would have thought Darden was resisting arrest. The videos show that Darden raised his hands when the officers entered the residence, and it appears that he rolled over onto his face at one point after the officers instructed him to do so.”
The ruling also reversed McBryde’s dismissal of the failure to train allegation against the City of Fort Worth, finding that he never reached the merits of the claim after determining the police officers did not violate Darden’s constitutional rights.
Matt Kita, a Dallas solo practitioner who represents the Darden estate, was pleased with the Fifth Circuit’s decision.
“This is a good case for both the Fourth Amendment and the Seventh Amendment. We have a right to be protected from an unreasonable seizure and the right to a jury trial,” Kita said.
Ken East and Dee Lee Thomas, the Fort Worth lawyers who represent the police officers, did not return a call for comment. Neither did Laetitia Coleman Brown, an assistant Fort Worth City attorney who represented the city on appeal.
“The argument by the city was that the officers have a right to control the situation,” Kita said. “And my rebuttal at argument was: ‘Really? Could they tase anybody? Could they tase a child?’ Reasonableness is a question to be decided by a jury.”