Acosta v. Miami-Dade County.

Acosta v. Miami-Dade County.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals, 3/28/24

No. 22-11675, 2024 WL 1326641

Judge Newsom

Topics: 1983 (Fourth Amendment); Wrongful Death

Quick Take: The district court erred in granting summary judgment to several officers on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims of excessive force and Florida state law claims of wrongful death. A group of six officers pursued a man who had been acting erratically and attacking his girlfriend. He initially resisted arrest, but witnesses stated that after he was tased and brought to the ground, he ceased resisting. Officers continued to tase and kick the man, and he died at the hospital from intracranial and anoxic brain injuries. Whether his death was from a drug overdose is disputed, but there is enough evidence that it was from the beating that that matter has to go to a jury.

Full Take: This is an excessive force case where the district court improperly granted summary judgment to several officers on excessive force 1983 claims and wrongful death claims.

Decedent Maykel Barrera arrived at the home of his girlfriend acting “paranoid” and “restless.” Barrera took the girlfriend's car and left without telling her where he was going. The girlfriend and her mother eventually called 911 to help search for him. A few hours later, he came back to the girlfriend’s house, and the girlfriend called 911 begging for help, shouting “emergency,” asking the police to hurry, and shouting for the boyfriend to get off of her. Decedent Barrera took the phone, threw it, and the call disconnected.

The police responded in “emergency mode,” arrived to find the car parked oddly, and saw Decedent Barrera peering out of the window and looking erratic. They came to the front of the apartment, but Decedent Barrera fled out the back door. The police chased him on foot.

Around six officers worked to bring Decedent Barrera to the ground, and he violently resisted at first. Two neighbor witnesses agreed, however, that once he was tased and brought to the ground, he stopped fighting, but officers continued to kick him and taste him. His heart stopped beating while paramedics were taking him to the hospital, and he died from intracranial and anoxic brain injuries suffered in the beating. His body was covered in bruises.

Barrerra’s mother, Acosta, sued the officers, Miami-Dade County Police Chief J.D. Patterson Jr., the Miami-Dade Police Department, and Miami-Dade County. Specifically, Acosta alleged (1) that by tasing and kicking Barrera when he was on the ground and had stopped resisting the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and (2) that all defendants were liable for Barrera's death under Florida's Wrongful Death Act, Fla. Stat. § 768.19.

The case was removed to federal court. The court dismissed claims against the employers and city. Then the officers moved for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity. The district court held (1) that the officers didn't use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and were therefore entitled to qualified immunity and (2) that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding Acosta's wrongful-death claim and that Barrera's death was caused by a drug overdose, not by the officers’ use of force.

Excessive force claims are grounded in the Fourth Amendment. The officers were acting within the scope of their discretionary authority when they apprehended Barrera. Acosta had to show that (1) that the officers “violated a statutory or constitutional right” and (2) “that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

To determine whether an officer used excessive force under an objective-reasonableness standard, we consider: (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether he was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight,” as well as (4) the need for the application of force, (5) the relationship between the need and amount of force used, and (6) the extent of the injury inflicted.

Although not all of the factors here point in the same direction, the totality of the circumstances—particularly taking the facts in the light most favorable to Acosta—led the Eleventh Circuit to conclude that the officers used excessive force when they tased and kicked Barrera while he was subdued, on the ground, and no longer resisting arrest. The court applied each factor separately, but it boils down to the fact that they continued to attack him after he stopped resisting.

Tasing and kicking Barrera once he was on the ground and had been subdued was a violation of “clearly established law” even in February 2014, the date of the beating. The district court granted summary judgment because an officer may lawfully use force against a suspect who never submits or ceases to resist arrest. But the problem is that, here, Barrera did cease resisting. Two witnesses testified that once Barrera was on the ground, he was “calm,” “okay,” “just laying there,” and (most emphatically) “gone,” which makes it sound like the beating continued after he was unconscious.

The controlling question, therefore, is whether it was clearly established in February 2014 that a police officer is prohibited from using force against a non-resisting suspect. It was. The court cited a string of cases to that effect. The answer is yes. Summary judgment was improper.

In regard to the Florida state law wrongful death claims, under Florida law, a negligence-based wrongful-death claim entails four elements: “(1) the existence of a legal duty owed to the decedent, (2) breach of that duty, (3) legal or proximate cause of death was that breach, and (4) consequential damages.” The plaintiff bears the burden of proving causation, but she needn't necessarily submit expert testimony to do so. Florida courts follow the “more likely than not” standard of causation and require proof that the defendant's conduct “probably” caused the plaintiff's injury.

To obtain summary judgment, the defendant bears the burden of showing either (1) that there is an “absence of evidence to support the [plaintiff's] case” or (2) that the plaintiff “will be unable to prove [her] case at trial.” To survive summary judgment, Acosta therefore “must come forward with enough evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion.” And a plaintiff can defeat a directed verdict when “there is substantial conflict in the evidence, such that reasonable and fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions.”

The district court granted summary judgment for the police officers because it said that it was “left with the unrebutted opinion of three experts who attest[ed] that Barrera died from a drug overdose.” But court acknowledged that Acosta had offered some evidence to the contrary. Taken together, (a) Barrera's medical records, (b) the expert witnesses’ opinions, and (c) the eyewitness’ accounts suffice to preclude summary judgment. Barrera's CT scan showed that he suffered a subdural hematoma, a symptom of lethal beatings. Barrera's records listed extensive injuries to his body, including probe marks on his chest and back and contusions all over his body. Third, his treating physicians reported that he had an “intracranial injury”—in particular, a “severe traumatic brain injury that was most likely nonsurvivable.” Finally, Barrera's records indicated that his immediate cause of death was “multiple blunt force trauma” and that the underlying cause was “anoxic brain injury.”

It's true that Barrera's medical records were prepared without the benefit of the post-mortem drug-toxicology analysis and that Barrera's anoxic brain injury could have been caused by a drug overdose. Even so, when understood in the light of Barrera's other physical injuries, Acosta carried her burden to show that the medical records support a reasonable inference that Barrera died from a subdural hematoma caused by blunt-force trauma.

No single piece of evidence alone proves that the officers’ tases and kicks caused Barrera's death. But when considered together, the evidence indicates “that reasonable and fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions.” And that's enough to get over the directed-verdict bar—and, in turn, to survive summary judgment. AFFIRMED in part, VACATED in part, and REMANDED in part for further proceedings.

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