Our positional asphyxia lawyers file lawsuits for people who have been harmed or died due to an unlawful restraint.

Police and other law enforcement officers, including prison guards, frequently use this restraint technique to subdue or control a person.

Many innocent people across the United States die every year from suffocation caused by this restraint.

While many officers are not charged criminally for these offenses, victims and their families can see justice through a civil lawsuit.

Police misconduct lawsuits hold officers and departments accountable for these unlawful deaths.  A person in the custody of a police officer or jail should never die from a police chokehold causing a suffocation death.

The Buckfire Law Firm specializes in cases involving positional asphyxia. We have filed lawsuits against police departments, prison and jail officers, hospital personnel, and private security guard companies.  Call us now for a free consultation and to start your case.

The Tragic George Floyd Death

What is positional asphyxia, and how can it result in the death of a person who is detained by the police or another law enforcement officer? This question is a key one as states and citizens across the country grapple with the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and continuation of violent police tactics that result in avoidable deaths.

In a recent report in NPR, the Floyd family attorney, Ben Crump, emphasized that “George died because he needed a breath, a breath of air.” For eight minutes and 46 seconds, the arresting officer appears on video, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, even though Floyd exclaims, “I can’t breathe.” For at least 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that nearly nine-minute total of footage, “Floyd appears unresponsive.”

George Floyd is certainly not the first person to die as a result of asphyxiation after being arrested or restrained by the police, corrections officers, or security guards. Indeed, in recent years alone, dozens of people who have been detained by law enforcement officials have uttered the words “I can’t breathe,” many shortly before dying of positional asphyxia.

It is critical to understand how positional asphyxia occurs and can be prevented.  You should also know how families can hold law enforcement officers accountable for positional asphyxia injuries and deaths.  Let our experienced attorneys start on your case now.

What is Positional Asphyxia?

According to a case report in the journal Medicine, positional asphyxia, also known as postural asphyxia, is “a form of mechanical asphyxia that occurs when a person is immobilized in a position which impairs adequate pulmonary ventilation and thus, results in a respiratory failure.”

In situations when positional asphyxia causes a death, “the body position has a direct hindering effect on normal circulation and venous return to the heart, which may be additional contributing factors to the obstruction of normal gas exchange.”

Positional asphyxia can occur as a result of a variety of actions, including but not limited to:

  • An “inversion of the whole body or of the upper part,” such that there is interference with “normal respiration and blood circulation due to the increase in the intrathoracic pressure and compression of the vena cava”;
  • A restricted neck posture, such as hyperflexion or hyperextension, which “can cause partial or complete airway obstruction”; and
  • A “compressions or flexion of the torso,” which “reduces total lung volume, function residual capacity and pulmonary expansion, eventually making breathing ineffective.”

While these medical terms can be complicated to understand, the key information is that positioning a person’s body in a particular way can obstruct air flow and breathing, and can ultimately lead to positional or postural asphyxia, which can result in death.

Training to Prevent Positional Asphyxia During Arrests and Confrontations

Law enforcement officials are supposed to be properly trained in restraining a suspect or in making an arrest in such a way as to prevent positional asphyxia. According to the National Law Enforcement Technology Center, the following sequence of events in a struggle explains how commonly used techniques for restraint can result in a death:

  • Suspect is restrained and is placed in a face-down position, at which point that person’s breathing can become more difficult;
  • Law enforcement official applies weight to the suspect’s back, or more compression;
  • Suspect experiences more difficulty breathing;
  • Suspect struggles because of a natural reaction to being unable to breathe; and
  • Law enforcement officer applies more weight or compression “to subdue” the suspect.

Allegedly, this kind of technique for restraint is only supposed to be used in situations where there is a “violent struggle extreme enough to require the officers to employ some type of restraint technique” like that described above. Yet law enforcement officers are also supposed to be trained to understand predisposing factors that can put a person at greater risk of suffering from positional asphyxia. Those factors include the following:

  • Obesity;
  • Alcohol use;
  • Drug use; and/or
  • Enlarged heart.

To prevent positional asphyxia, law enforcement officials “should learn to recognize factors contributing to positional asphyxia” and, “where possible, avoid the use of maximally prone restraint techniques.” Law enforcement officials are supposed to consider the following:

  • Once a person has been handcuffed, make sure that person is no longer positioned on his or her stomach;
  • Ask the person being restrained if she or he has used alcohol or drugs recently;
  • Ask the person being restrained if she or he has a cardiac or a respiratory condition that could make that person more prone to positional asphyxia;
  • Monitor the person for signs of positional asphyxia and seek medical treatment when necessary;
  • Get training to recognizing signs of breathing problems and loss of consciousness;
  • Obtain medical care for a suspect who requests it; and
  • Inform anyone else to whom custody is transferred about predisposing factors for positional asphyxia.

Similarly, an article in Police Magazine emphasizes that law enforcement officers should avoid using “prone restraint techniques” when other techniques for restraint are feasible.  They should understand the risks of positional asphyxia and the signs of potential health issues should remove subjects from face-down positions once they have been handcuffed.

Officers should question the suspect about alcohol or drug use or other medical issues that might increase the risk of positional asphyxia.  They should also monitor the suspect and seek medical attention if necessary.

While law enforcement officers may be trained in such risk-mitigating techniques, nearly all of the recent cases of positional asphyxia involve a victim who emphasized that they could not breathe.  Failure to follow risk-mitigating procedures could be evidence of negligence in a positional asphyxia lawsuit filed by the victim’s family.

Proving Liability in Positional Asphyxia Cases

There are several different theories of liability in personal injury cases involving a person’s death due to positional asphyxia during an arrest or detainment. Most police brutality cases will arise under one of the following legal theories:

  • Violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983) in use of excessive force: typically alleges that the law enforcement official, “under color of law,” violated constitutional rights.
  • Violation of substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: For the most part, this is not the way in which most excessive force cases are brought when a person is detained or arrested, and dies from positional asphyxia.

In the case Johnson v. Glick (1973), the Second Circuit decided on a police assault case under the theory of substantive due process. However, the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in Graham v. Connor (1989) that the “objective reasonableness” standard of the Fourth Amendment was the proper channel for bringing an excessive force claim.

  • Reasonableness of police action under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: Referring to the case of Graham v. Connor (1989) cited above, the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment, in addition to the Eighth Amendment, are the two laws that provide protections against abusive government conduct.
  • In the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against an unreasonable search and seizure, the Fourth Amendment uses an “objective reasonableness” standard, which means that the law enforcement officer’s use of force must be judged by an “objective reasonableness” standard. This became the standard for making judgments about excessive force cases.
  • Negligence in a wrongful death lawsuit: In many police brutality lawsuits that result in the death of a detained or arrested person, particularly in cases involving positional asphyxia and the detained person crying out “I can’t breathe,” the family of the deceased may (and often will) file a wrongful death claim under a theory of negligence.

All of these potential options for filing a lawsuit are designed to provide the victim or his or her family with a civil remedy. To be clear, none of these options can result in a criminal penalty for the offending police officer or other law enforcement party.

In order for criminal penalties to be assessed, the county or state (or similar) would need to bring criminal charges against the officers responsible for the death. Despite the fact that many acts of police brutality or excessive force that result in positional asphyxia deaths are caught on camera, an overwhelming majority of the officers do not face criminal charges. Unfortunately for the families of those who have been killed, civil remedies are typically the only available options to hold the responsible parties accountable in some sense and to seek damages.

Who May be Liable in a Positional Asphyxia Lawsuit?

In a positional asphyxia case, it may be possible to name more than one defendant. The potential defendants who may be responsible will depend upon the specific facts of the case, but the following are possible parties against whom you may be able to file a lawsuit with help from an experienced attorney:

  • Individual police officers;
  • Corrections officers;
  • Security guards;
  • Private employers of security guards;
  • Private property owners where positional asphyxia deaths have occurred;
  • City and municipal police departments;
  • State police departments; and
  • Cities or municipalities that have employed police officers involved in positional asphyxia deaths.

How Do you Prove Cause of Death?

The cause of death of a person in police or jail custody is most often determined by a state or county medical examiner in an autopsy.  While the police may argue the death was caused by a heart condition or drug overdose, the autopsy will often prove that the death was caused by positional asphyxia.

Many times, our firm will hire a private medical examiner to perform an autopsy.  This is done because the government medical examiner may be biased in favor of the policing agency.

National Cases and Lawsuits Involving Positional Asphyxia

A number of high-profile positional asphyxia cases have arisen in the news media over the last couple of decades. The following provide information about a number of relatively recent positional asphyxia cases in which a detainee or arrestee was unable to breathe and died after being taken into police custody:

  • Most recently, the killing of George Floyd has brought the issue of positional asphyxia into the public sphere in ways that are more salient, perhaps, than in the past. In May 2020, Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, and an independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family revealed that the cause of death was asphyxiation.
  • In Farmington, New Mexico in 2019, the parents of Daniel Turner filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Farmington Police Department officers James Prince, James Moore, Zack Wood, and Jesse Griggs, in addition to naming the City of Farmington as a defendant, in a positional asphyxia case. According to an article in the Farmington Daily Times, Turner’s parents “watched their son die right before their eyes.”
  • In 2017, police officers in Columbus, Georgia responded to a “medical backup” call involving 30-year-old Hector Arreola, who was experiencing a “major panic attack prompted by methamphetamine use,” according to an NBC News report. The police moved to arrest Arreola, and he told the police officers a total of 16 times, “I can’t breathe.” The police continued to “apply pressure for over 2 minutes after he was non-responsive, handcuffed until he went non-responsive.” After Arreola was unresponsive, “a third officer showed up on the scene with leg irons, shackles, [and] shackled Hector and then continued to sit on his back for a few minutes.”
  • In 2014, a 25-year-old Black man, McKenzie Cochran, was killed by mall security guards while being restrained. The county medical examiner’s office ruled that Cochran died as a result of “position compression asphyxia.” The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the security guards and the security company that employed them.
  • In September 2002, the Orlando Sentinel reported that a 37-year-old man, Gordon Randall Jones, died after being shocked with a Taser gun 13 times by Orange County deputy sheriffs and placed face down on a stretcher, which led to his death. The Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s office described the death as “a pretty classic case of positional asphyxia.”

Unlawful Restraint Causing Positional Asphyxia Statistics

According to an article in USA Today, since 2010, at least 134 deadly police encounters have occurred “in which victims said they couldn’t breathe while being restrained,” and those deaths have been attributed to “asphyxia/restraint.” In some of the cases, the victims were not even able to breathe for long enough to express their difficulty breathing. As the article underscores, that number of victims “is likely an undercount.”

In more than 50% of the cases, the victim was a black male. At least 75% of the victims were nonwhite. In a large number of the cases, the victims were not detained for allegations of a violent crime, and many were also victims of mistaken identity. Indeed, as USA Today reports, “many were stopped for minor infractions, or because they fit the description of a suspect, or because they were acting erratically due to drugs or mental illness.”

Although the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which was passed in 2013, “requires the federal government to track fatal detentions, arrests, and incarcerations,” the law has not been implemented. In addition, much of the data from federal law enforcement officials has not been published. Of the 18,000 police agencies in the country, “less than half” have voluntarily supplied data concerning use-of-force violations and deaths arising from asphyxia and arrests.

Can I Sue for a Positional Asphyxia Suffocation Death?

Families of a person who dies from a restraint that caused positional asphyxia can file a wrongful death lawsuit. These cases demand compensation for the pain and suffering from the decedent from the time of the restraint until the time of death.

As this can often take five minutes or more, these damages can be significant.  Being unable to breathe and knowing that your death is likely is a horrific way to die.  The law allows monetary compensation for this type of harm and there are no limits on the amount.

In addition, the family members can recover compensation for their loss of companionship of the loved one.  Such a loss has devastating emotional and financial losses on a family.

Seek Advice From an Aggressive Injury Attorney

Contact our experienced positional asphyxia lawyers now if someone you care about died due to an unlawful restraint that caused a positional asphyxia death.  We will get all of the available video, witness statements, and other evidence to prove and win your case.

The sooner you contact us, the better chance you have of winning your case.  We charge no legal fees unless you win a settlement and it costs no money to start your case.  Call now.

- Nicole H.
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