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Napier v. County Commission of Lincoln County

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

May 16, 2019

COUNTY COMMISSION OF LINCOLN COUNTY and ZACH SOWARDS, in his official and individual capacity, Defendants.



         As previously ordered (ECF No. 117), the Court GRANTS summary judgment for the following reasons in favor of Defendant Zach Sowards and Defendant County Commission of Lincoln County. ECF Nos. 84, 86.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 2, 2016, Plaintiff Thomas Napier consumed heroin and ingested Xanax. Dep. of Thomas Napier, at 41, ECF No. 90-3. As a result, his family took him to the emergency room at St. Mary's Medical Center because he appeared to have overdosed. Am. Compl., ¶¶ 6, 7, ECF No. 69. Medical records describe Plaintiff “as ‘disoriented', ‘combative', and having an ‘altered mental status[, ]'” and provide that Plaintiff's ankles and wrists were restrained for safety by order of a physician. Id. at ¶¶ 10, 11. Plaintiff also was given “an antipsychotic drug to stabilize his mood.” Id. at ¶ 12. The treating doctor twice ordered medications to calm Plaintiff, but these medications failed to abate Plaintiff's aggressive behavior. Dep. of Julie Vaughn, at 13, ECF No. 88-2. Plaintiff has no clear recall of the events of that day, nor does he have any firsthand recollection of the events that took place when he was at St. Mary's Medical Center. Napier Dep., at 42-43. Plaintiff's last memory prior to waking up in the hospital was buying heroin in Huntington. Id. at 46.

         Defendant Zach Sowards, who was employed as a Deputy Sheriff by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office at the time, was in the Emergency Room at St. Mary's with an unrelated detainee and heard a commotion which drew his attention. Dep. of Zach Sowards, at 8, ECF No. 90-2. As a result, Defendant Sowards went to Plaintiff's hospital room, where he and two doctors held Plaintiff down as he attempted to break free from his four-point restraints. Id. at 11; Vaughn Dep., at 93. Defendant Sowards and the surrounding medical staff were unable to physically subdue Plaintiff long enough to attach an IV with sedatives, as Plaintiff kept ripping out the needle. Id., at 9. After a prolonged struggle, Defendant Sowards used his taser to deliver a stun long enough for medical staff to administer sedatives. Id. at 11-12. As a result, Plaintiff sustained bruises and other injuries. Ex. 2, Vaughn Dep., at 12, ECF No. 90-1.

         Plaintiff then filed suit, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights by Defendant Sowards, along with any associated state law claims. Am. Compl., ¶¶ 31-33. Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant County Commission of Lincoln County (“the Commission”) “as a matter of policy, practice, and/or custom, ” failed to ensure “appropriate policies” were in place in regard to the use of tasers, failed to “adequately train[] and supervise[]” deputy sheriffs, including Defendant Sowards, in the use of tasers, and failed to “conduct proper, adequate, and meaningful investigations into the use of force, ” specifically the use of electronic control devices such as tasers. Id. at ¶¶ 25-27. Plaintiff asserts these failures by the Commission deprived him “of his right to be free from the use of excessive force[, ]” and proximately caused his injuries, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at ¶ 31.


         A party moving for summary judgment must show there is no genuine issue of any material fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In considering summary judgment, the Court shall not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter[.]” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). However, the Court shall draw any permissible inference from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). The nonmoving party must offer some “concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his [or her] favor[.]” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. Summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmoving party has the burden of proof on an essential element of his or her case and does not make, after adequate time for discovery, a showing sufficient to establish that element. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The nonmoving party must satisfy this burden of proof by offering more than a mere “scintilla of evidence” in support of his or her position. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.


         In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant Sowards claims he is entitled to qualified immunity. Sowards' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J., at 11, ECF No. 85. Qualified immunity “shields government officials from liability for civil damages, provided that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights within the knowledge of a reasonable person.” Meyers v. Baltimore Cty., 713 F.3d 723, 731 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). It shields law enforcement officers from “bad guesses in gray areas” and ensures they are liable only “for transgressing bright lines.” Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted).

         Courts evaluate claims of excessive force on an “objective reasonableness” standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 399 (1989). It requires “consider[ation of] the facts at the moment that the challenged force was employed.” Smith v. Ray, 781 F.3d 95, 101 (4th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Courts focus on the totality of the circumstances of each case, normally looking to the following factors: “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396 (citation omitted). However, as this case involves a medical emergency, rather than a crime and arrest, the Graham factors must be tailored to correspond to this situation.

         In Estate of Hill v. Miracle, 853 F.3d 306 (6th Cir. 2017), the Sixth Circuit adapted the Graham factors to test whether an officer used excessive force in a situation involving a medical emergency. In Miracle, an officer used a taser on an individual who was disoriented and combative because his blood-sugar level was dangerously low. 853 F.3d at 310-11. After the taser was deployed, the individual calmed down, and emergency medical personnel were able to restore his blood-sugar level to the normal range. Id. at 311. The individual then sued the officer for excessive force, amongst other things. Id.

         In fashioning the Graham factors to provide guidance in a medical-emergency context, the Sixth Circuit held, a court should ask:

(1) Was the person experiencing a medical emergency that rendered him incapable of making a rational decision under circumstances that posed an immediate threat of ...

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