Taser Death Explored in St. Martin Parish Case

In our prior post, we began our review of a wrongful death action that followed the tasering of Othello Pierre by two St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s deputies after he caused a disturbance at a Fourth of July party and attempted to flee the scene. We now examine the approach taken by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in analyzing whether the deputies’ use of the taser amounted to unconstitutionally excessive force.

According to the court, an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment “must demonstrate (1) injury, (2) which resulted directly and only from a clearly excessive force, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable.” In order for the Plaintiff to be successful in this wrongful death action, it is essential that all of these three requirements articulated by the court are met. If even one of the prongs to an excessive force claim are not met, then the Plaintiff will ultimately fail in his action.
In the case of Mr. Pierre, the court concluded that the Plaintiff’s claim “fail[ed] on the second prong” because they offered no evidence to show that Pierre’s injuries–and, by extension, his death–were the direct result of the tasing. Thus, in the court’s view, Pierre’s death did not result directly from the tasing; therefore, he did not meet all the explicit requirements for an excessive force claim. By not meeting the second requirement, the question of whether the tasering was reasonable in the first place was effectively moot.

Many other factors came into play in the courts decision as to whether  the tasing was a direct result of Mr. Pierre’s death. Without the tasing as a possible basis for an excessive force claim, the court considered whether the deputies’ chasing Pierre on foot was excessive force. It concluded: “there is no doubt that chasing a suspect with an outstanding warrant who was resisting arrest is objectively reasonable.” This conclusion withstood the theory of the Plaintiff’s medical expert that Pierre’s death was brought about by the exertion of the pursuit, as well as the fact that Pierre was in a state of “excited delirium” during the chase as a result of his being under the influence of various drugs. Ultimately, the court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings on other matters not discussed in this post.

This case comes amid significant recent controversy over the use of tasers by law enforcement officers. Although many people have voiced great opposition to officers’ use of tasers, municipalities are increasingly adding them to the arsenal of officers’ tools for subduing uncooperative suspects. As this case shows, the courts evaluate officers’ taser-related conduct in a similar fashion to the traditional deadly/excessive force analysis that is applied to their use of firearms. But the comparison is not exactly the same, and so it is essential for plaintiffs in a tasering case to seek an experienced attorney who understands the complexities of this area of the law. An experience attorney will be able to guide you through each element that is required in a case and be able to come up with an effective strategy to meet each requirement to win the case.