Wrongful Death Caused By Police Negligence?

For all of my readers out there, here’s a quick question: Can a city or town police department be civilly sued because of the negligence of their police officers?

The answer is yes, although many people might not have thought so.

There is a story out of the city of Frederick, Maryland that is making national headlines right now, and as a Boston injury lawyer, I hope that the right attorney in Maryland is consulted in this matter. Why? To hopefully file a lawsuit for negligence and wrongful death in this apparently horrific case involving the death of an innocent person at the hands of what at this time appears to be a case of police brutality and police misconduct. The story concerns an unfortunate man with Down syndrome, who simply wished to sit through a second showing of the film Zero Dark Thirty in his neighborhood movie theater. And the desire to do that has left him dead.

Yes, dead. It is a shocking story, and if you aren’t familiar with the details already, here they are: Robert Ethan Saylor was a 26-year-old man who lived in Maryland. He suffered from Down syndrome and was very disabled, yet despite his disability he was fascinated with law enforcement and police work. Apparently, he would sometimes dial 911 just to speak to the dispatchers and ask them a question. When police would arrive at his home, he was fascinated by them and would just want to talk with them about their work. (Obviously, Mr. Saylor was intellectually challenged, as a consequence of suffering from Down Syndrome.) In fact, he called 911 so much that his mother, last year, brought cookies to the sheriff’s office, to thank everyone for all the unnecessary trips they made to the Saylor home. Mr. Saylor also liked to watch the TV show NCIS.

Recently, Mr. Saylor sat though the film Zero Dark Thirty at a movie theater in Frederick, Maryland. He liked the movie so much, he wanted to simply sit through it again, for a second time – without buying another ticket. When he refused to exit the theater, a theater employee reportedly made a phone call to the off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies, who, at that time, were employed at a second-shift security job in the Westview Promenade shopping center. The events that happened next are currently under investigation on the part of the Frederick County Bureau of Investigation, and their results will make their way, eventually, to the State Attorney’s office. In my view as a Boston, Massachusetts negligent police conduct lawyer, that’s Mistake One in this matter: Any investigation in this matter should be conducted by an outside, neutral third party, having no affiliation whatsoever with the City of Frederick, Maryland.

Here, reportedly, is what happened next: A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office named Jennifer Bailey contends that when the deputies showed up at the theater to escort Mr. Saylor out of the building, Mr. Saylor cursed at the deputies (who were not wearing any uniforms) and also kicked and hit them. That led the deputies to restrain him using not one, not two, but THREE sets of handcuffs. As he was being escorted out of the theater, Mr. Saylor suddenly wound up on the ground, showing signs of physical distress. Not too long after that, he was pronounced dead. His death has been determined as a homicide resulting from asphyxiation, according to the chief medical examiner in Baltimore. “Asphyxiation,” as most people know, is the medical term for suffocation. Which in all likelihood means that one or more of these deputies kneeled on him, sat on him, or otherwise caused their weight to be on top of him. Imagine that: Three separate deputies, handcuffing a Down’s Syndrome vistim with THREE sets of handcuffs, then by by all present appearances, causing him to be suffocated.

I trust that you are as shocked, and appalled, as I am at this. As a Boston, Massachusetts wrongful death attorney, I’m an expert on the law of wrongful death in this state. I’m not licensed in the state of Maryland, but I hope this poor soul’s family consults with an experienced Maryland wrongful death attorney very soon. That a developmentally disabled man who idolized police – and who loved learning about criminal investigations – would be killed by police under these circumstances, shocks the conscience.

The three deputies involved were reported to have received annual training on the use of force, and also on dealing with people with mental health issues. They have been placed on paid administrative leave. Meanwhile, the case has sparked the fears of parents of children with Down syndrome and has also caught the widespread attention of advocacy groups. A spokesperson for the National Down Syndrome Society issued a statement saying that the incident was scary and upsetting. She added: “With law enforcement, any misunderstandings are particularly risky, and we certainly hope that abuse is not tolerated.”

This story calls out for a rapid, and thorough investigation, by an experienced, neutral third party that is not in any way affiliated or connected to the Frederick, Maryland Police Department or the political and/or managerial leadership of the city of Frederick. For a report by the Washington Post on this story, click here.

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