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Estate of Harjo v. City of Oklahoma City

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 25, 2017

THE ESTATE OF DAVID HARJO, through his duly appointed personal representative, Tim Harjo, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF OKLAHOMA CITY, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are Defendant City's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 47] and the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Beasley and Thompson [Doc. No. 49]. All defendants seek a judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 on Plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law regarding the death of David Harjo. Plaintiff has filed timely responses [Doc. Nos. 59 & 61], and Defendants have filed reply briefs [Doc. Nos. 63 & 65]. Thus, the Motions are fully briefed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Estate of David Harjo, through its personal representative Tim Harjo, filed this action in state court on July 30, 2015, against the City of Oklahoma City alleging that the death of David Harjo was caused by an injury sustained in the custody of two of the City's police officers. Following a motion for dismissal, Plaintiff amended its pleading to assert two alternative claims: 1) against the City for negligence or misconduct of the police officers, seeking damages pursuant to the Governmental Tort Claims Act (“GTCA”), Okla.

         Stat. tit. 51, § 151 et seq.; and 2) against the police officers, Jonathan Beasley (“Sgt. Beasley”) and Jeremiah Thompson (“Officer Thompson”), for intentional use of force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants removed the case to federal court based on subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, and 1367.

         Briefly stated, Mr. Harjo's death on April 17, 2014, was caused by an acute subdural hematoma or hemorrhage due to blunt force head trauma. Plaintiff claims Mr. Harjo suffered his fatal injury at the hands of the City's police officers. According to Plaintiff's pleading, Officer Thompson and Sgt. Beasley transported Mr. Harjo from Deaconess Hospital, where he received emergency treatment for chest pain on April 13, 2014, to the Public Inebriate Alternative Facility or “detox” center; and then transported Mr. Harjo back to the hospital a short time later because the detox center refused to admit him. Plaintiff alleges Mr. Harjo was examined upon his return to the hospital and found to have suffered a head injury and subdural hematoma that resulted in his death three days later.

         Defendants move for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff lacks any evidence to establish Mr. Harjo's fatal injury occurred while he was in police custody and thus Plaintiff cannot prevail on either an excessive force claim against the individual officers or a claim against the City. Specifically, Defendants contend the facts developed during discovery do not support a reasonable inference that Officer Thompson inflicted any blow or head trauma to Mr. Harjo, and a video recording of Sgt. Beasley's only contact with Mr. Harjo at the detox center negates any claim against him. Plaintiff vigorously disputes the first contention but abandons its claim against Sgt. Beasley, affirmatively stating in response to his Motion: “No Claim Is Pursued Against Beasley.” See Pl.'s Resp. Br. [Doc. No. 59] at 23.[1] The City asserts additional grounds for summary judgment based on certain exemptions provided by the GTCA. Plaintiff disputes the applicability of these exemptions under the circumstances of this case.

         Standard of Decision

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for either party. Id. at 255. All facts and reasonable inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id.

         The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a dispute of material fact warranting summary judgment. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). If the movant carries this burden, the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and “set forth specific facts” that would be admissible in evidence and that show a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1998). “To accomplish this, the facts must be identified by reference to affidavits, deposition transcripts, or specific exhibits incorporated therein.” Adler, 144 F.3d at 671; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).

         Statement of Undisputed Facts

         David Harjo's death was caused by an acute subdural hemorrhage due to blunt force head trauma; other significant medical conditions were cirrhosis, alcoholism, and pneumonia. Plaintiff claims Mr. Harjo suffered his fatal injury in the custody of Officer Thompson, who transported Mr. Harjo from the emergency department of Deaconess Hospital to the detox center shortly before midnight on April 13, 2014. An ambulance had brought Mr. Harjo to the hospital earlier that evening for evaluation of a complaint of chest pain; no medical personnel documented a head injury at that time. The ambulance workers were familiar with Mr. Harjo from prior encounters related to his alcoholism; they noticed a different demeanor on this occasion in that he was less belligerent and did not need to be restrained, but they noted no recent injury to his head.

         The hospital nurse assigned to Mr. Harjo's case, Wynesha Kirk, has testified that Mr. Harjo was responsive and ambulatory during his assessment, throughout his hospital stay, and when she discharged him.[2] Ms. Kirk noted abrasions and bruising on Mr. Harjo's forearms, but no injury to his head. After his discharge, another hospital employee, Mark Woodruff, transported Mr. Harjo by wheelchair to the police car and placed him in the back seat with assistance from Officer Thompson. There is conflicting testimony regarding Mr. Harjo's responsiveness at that time. However, a video recording made by a hospital security camera shows Mr. Harjo slumped in the wheelchair and appearing to drag his feet while being transported to the car; Mr. Woodruff was pulling the wheelchair backwards to prevent Mr. Harjo from slipping down. Mr. Woodruff bumped Mr. Harjo's head with the car door during the transfer process, but the degree of force was not significant and did not cause a visible injury.

         At Officer Thompson's request, Sgt. Beasley met him at the detox center to help remove Mr. Harjo from the police car. A video recording taken by an outdoor security camera at the detox center shows the two officers lifting Mr. Harjo from the back seat of Officer Thompson's patrol car and placing his body on the ground, where it remained until an ambulance arrived. The detox center refused to accept Mr. Harjo. An ambulance transported Mr. Harjo back to Deaconess Hospital shortly before 1:00 A.M. on April 14, 2014. An abrasion on Mr. Harjo's forehead was first documented by medical staff at that time. Sgt. Beasley had also noticed a small amount of dried blood on Mr. Harjo's forehead. The autopsy report notes a “[l]inear healing abrasion, 1 cm, right forehead, with underlying right frontal subscalpular [sic] hemorrhage.” See ...


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