Use of Force During a Medical Emergency: A New Standard from the Sixth Circuit
By: Tami Z. Hannon & Curtis M. Graham
Earlier this year the Sixth Circuit had occasion to address what standard applies to use of force claims in the context of a medical emergency. In Estate of Hill by Hill v. Miracle, 853 F.3d 306 (6th Cir. 2017) a diabetic person filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against a law enforcement officer after a taser was used against the plaintiff while he was experiencing a hypoglycemic episode. The plaintiff was agitated toward the responding officer and medical personnel for attempting to treat him and was acting combative and confused. The officer eventually deployed his taser when the plaintiff continued to kick and swing at the paramedics.
The plaintiff alleged that the officer’s decision to use the taser constituted excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He also asserted state law claims of assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress. The officer moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. This motion was denied by the District Court and the officer then appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
The importance of Miracle is that the Court moved away from the use of force test provided for in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). In Graham, the Supreme Court used a three-factor test to assess the objective reasonableness of an officer’s use of force. Those factors were: (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
The Miracle Court stated that applying the Graham factors to a medical emergency situation “is equivalent to a baseball player entering the batter’s box with two strikes already against him.” Specifically, because the plaintiff in Miracle had not committed a crime and was not resisting arrest, two of the three Graham factors automatically weighed against the officer. Instead, the Court announced that when the person in question has not committed a crime, is not resisting arrest and is not directly threatening the officer, the court should ask:
(1) Was the person experiencing a medical emergency that rendered him incapable of making a rational decision under circumstances that posed an immediate threat of serious harm to himself or others?
(2) Was some degree of force reasonably necessary to minimize the immediate threat?
(3) Was the force used more than reasonably necessary under the circumstances (i.e., was it excessive)?
If the answers to the first two questions are “yes,” and the answer to the third question is “no,” then the officer is entitled to qualified immunity. Turning to the facts of the case at hand, the Court found the plaintiff was experiencing a medical emergency and was not able to make rational decisions due to his condition. Additionally, the officer and paramedics were put in immediate physical danger by the plaintiff’s combative actions and the plaintiff himself would have been in grave danger had the officer done nothing. Finally, the Court found the force used was reasonably necessary due to the fact that four paramedics had been unable to restrain the plaintiff.
The new factors announced in Miracle allow courts to more appropriately evaluate the reasonableness of officers’ actions in light of the (often unpredictable) circumstances they find themselves in. Law enforcement officers should take note of this important decision involving qualified immunity and keep these principles in mind when they are confronted with situations involving medical emergencies. Additionally, departments would be well served to educate their officers on these factors and possibly revise their policies and procedures in light of this notable decision (particularly those relating to officers’ response to aggression). This may require additional training on recognizing medical emergencies. When it comes to minimizing liability exposure, understanding how a court will assess similar cases in the future is a key to success.
Tami Hannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Partner in MRR’s Cleveland Office and Curt Graham (email@example.com) is an Associate in MRR’s Lexington Office. For more info, please contact MRR via email or call 440.248.7906.