Federal Court Allows Excessive Force Claim Against Michigan State Police to Go Forward
In a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force case, a plaintiff alleged two defendant Michigan state troopers struck him with their police cruiser, tased him, and forced him to stand and walk on his injured left leg after he dislocated his hip. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity based on their police cruiser’s dash-cam video of the pursuit and incident. The defendants further argued that the plaintiff ran into their parked vehicle and was therefore responsible for his own injuries.In addition to his excessive force claim, the plaintiff alleged a state law claim of gross negligence against the officers. They argued that his gross negligence claim should be dismissed because the factual allegations pled supported an intentional tort claim only. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied their motion for summary judgment as to the § 1983 claim for excessive force but granted the summary judgment motion as to the gross negligence claim.
The court first analyzed whether the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the excessive force claim brought under § 1983. The defendants argued qualified immunity shielded them from liability. Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The court employs a two-step inquiry in deciding qualified immunity questions. First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, has the plaintiff shown that a constitutional violation has occurred? Second, was the right clearly established at the time of the violation?
The district court first found that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the individual police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the officers used excessive force. The defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity based on the dash-cam video and the plaintiff’s signed statement, given at the hospital, that he slipped on the mud and ran into the police cruiser himself. But the medical records showed that he suffered a very serious injury involving the dislocation of his hip and a comminuted fracture of the left acetabulum, which required traction, surgery, six days of hospitalization, and a long period of recovery in a rehabilitation center. His treating physician noted that although police first told him that the plaintiff had run into the police car, the patient later told him he had been hit by the police car. In fact, numerous notations were set forth in the medical records stating that the plaintiff reported that he was struck by the police cruiser, which ran over his left leg. Given the severity of his injuries, it appeared plausible that the police cruiser struck him rather than that he merely ran into the vehicle himself.
In addition to evidence that the defendants may have struck the plaintiff with their police cruiser, his excessive force claim was also premised on the fact that one of them tased him while he was on the ground. The officer argued that the tasing was appropriate because the plaintiff was resisting arrest, but the district court found this factual issue remained in dispute and could not be resolved yet. In sum, the district court held that questions of fact existed regarding whether the force used was reasonable.
The next question was whether a constitutional right was clearly established. The Sixth Circuit has stated that the key determination is whether a defendant moving for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds was on notice that his alleged actions were unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit has also held that it is clearly established law that an officer may not use his police vehicle to intentionally hit a motorcycle unless the suspect on the motorcycle poses a threat to the officer or others.
In this case, the district court held that the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff supported a finding that there was at least a genuine issue of fact as to whether the defendants violated a clearly established right. If it was unlawful for the police to strike an individual on a motorcycle, who was posing no threat to the officers or others, with their police vehicle, clearly by implication, it was unlawful to strike a similarly situated individual on foot with a patrol car. Thus, a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendants used excessive force in violation of the plaintiff’s clearly established constitutional rights. Accordingly, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the § 1983 claim was denied.
The court next analyzed the gross negligence claim. Under Michigan’s Tort Liability Act, a governmental employee is not liable for injuries sounding in tort, provided the employee’s conduct does not amount to gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage. The plaintiff premised his gross negligence claim solely on the defendants’ duty not to use excessive force. He argued that defendants may be liable for breaching a duty to treat a plaintiff with respect and dignity, as may be consistent with their security.
Problematically, the district court reasoned, the plaintiff did not plead the existence of any such duty in his Complaint. The court also was not prepared to recognize the existence of the duty under the circumstances presented here when the police chased the plaintiff, sirens blaring, for fleeing and eluding as he raced his motorized bike the wrong way down a one-way street. The injuries at issue resulted when the plaintiff struck the police cruiser. Under these circumstances involving an alleged intentional offensive touching, the officers’ conduct should be analyzed in the context of whether the force used was excessive under § 1983 or the analogous intentional tort of assault and battery. For these reasons, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the negligence claim was granted.
The civil rights attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent people throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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