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Volume XI, Number 25

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Lawsuits for Police Chokehold Deaths

DETROIT - The nation became aware of the police chokehold maneuver after death of Eric Garner in the on July 17, 2014.  The extensive use of that tactic came into further public view after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. 

Both men pleaded for their life and uttered “I can’t breathe” just moments before their tragic deaths.  Both cases resulted in civil lawsuits against the offending officers and police departments.

There are two general types of police chokeholds. In a respiratory chokehold, the officer uses their arm across the front of another person’s neck, blocking their airways and making it impossible to breathe. 

A carotid chokehold is when the officer places an arm around the neck and puts pressure on the sides of the neck to slow the blood flowing through two large arteries to render the person unconscious. Both can, and have caused the death of detainees.

After these much-publicized tragic deaths, many governmental entities across the country have taken steps to ban chokeholds. For example, the Phoenix Police Department has completely ceased using carotid chokeholds. In California, the governor directed officers to stop using those same maneuvers. And in Washington D.C., the legislature banned the use of all chokeholds.

The police officers involved in the Garner and Floyd cases are facing criminal prosecution for the deaths caused by excessive force. 

In addition, civil lawsuits were filed demanding compensation for the preventable and unnecessary deaths. There are several legal theories used in civil lawsuits alleging police misconduct and excessive force pled in cases based upon deaths caused by police chokeholds.

In many states, police officers have specific immunities for their conduct set forth by state statutes. The standards for suing the officer and department are much higher than a general negligence claim used in most personal injury lawsuits. 

A higher standard for gross negligence is frequently required and it is often difficult to prove the action rose to that level.

Due to the limitations of pursuing claims under state laws, victims and their families usually file police chokehold lawsuits by alleging violations of constitutional violations. This includes violations of the victim’s Fourth Amendment rights. In general, the amendment prevents the unlawful search and seizure of citizens by law enforcement officers.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner (1985) specifically addresses the Fourth Amendment in these cases. The court held that a police officer could only use deadly force (like a chokehold) if deadly force is being used “to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect” and “only if the officer has a good-faith belief that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

In addition to the Fourth Amendment, other constitutional rights violations are often the basis for bringing chokehold lawsuits. Despite the public outcry against these police maneuvers and many of these tragic deaths being captured on video, it appears that the problem is not going away.  Police officers continue to cause unnecessary deaths and as a result, lawsuits continue to be filed.

These lawsuits are brought against governmental agencies and as a result, the settlements are a matter of public record.  New York City paid a $ 5.9 million settlement to the family of Eric Garner and the Las Vegas Police Department paid a $2.2 million settlement to the family of Tashii Brown, who was killed by a police officer using a chokehold maneuver.

In 2015, the 10 largest U.S. cities paid out nearly $250 million in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases. That settlement figure represents an increase of nearly 50% from just five years prior in 2010.

Since 2015, the number of lawsuits and settlements continues to rise and there appears to be no end in sight. Lawsuits for police misconduct demand compensation for the injured person. 

In the event of a chokehold death, family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit. These cases seek settlement compensation for the loss of companionship of the loved one. 

In addition, many states allow compensatory damages for the physical suffering and mental anguish the decedent experienced just prior to death. There are no specific guidelines for determining settlement amounts.

Sources:

Buckfire & Buckfire, P.C. 2020National Law Review, Volume X, Number 328
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About this Author

Larry Buckfire Personal Injury Attorney Buckfire Law
President and Attorney

Lawrence J. Buckfire (Larry Buckfire) earned his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan in 1986 and his juris doctor degree from Wayne State University School of Law in 1989. He has been in private practice since successfully completing the bar exam in 1989. He is admitted to practice law in the State of Michigan, State of Ohio, and in the United States District Court.

Lawrence is the lead trial attorney and managing partner at Buckfire & Buckfire, P.C.  The law firm was founded in 1969 by his father David Buckfire with the principle of representing...

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