Man Can Sue Iowa Police for Stun Gun Attack
An Iowa man who was immobilized with a stun gun by police in 2007 will be allowed to bring a lawsuit against the force, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.
A lower court had previously disallowed the lawsuit, claiming that the officers were protected by the state’s Tort Claims Act, which gives immunity in most circumstances to state law enforcement agents who are carrying out their duties.
The litigation stems from an incident that took place over six years ago, at a festival in the town of North Liberty. Four members of the local police force used a stun gun on Joshua Thomas after a fight broke out.
In his suit, Thomas claimed that the cops used unnecessary force and that he continues to suffer pain and muscle damages from the repeated shocks. However, a district court reasoned that the officers were enforcing state law and therefore should be protected from liability under the Act, which limits lawsuits for “any claim against an employee of the state for money only, on account of damage to or loss of property, or on account of personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the state while acting within the scope of the employee’s office or employment.”
Not so, the state Supreme Court weighed in, and the plaintiff will get a chance to make his case in court.
Heart Attacks and Death
Stun gun use is often justified as being a non-lethal way for law enforcement agents to incapacitate a suspect without resorting to deadly force. However, it turns out the devices can be deadly after all, sometimes provoking heart attacks in people who are subjected to their electric shocks.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2009 that tasers constitute a significant use of force and can only be used when a suspect poses an immediate threat.
Earlier this year, San Jose had to shell out $1 million after four police officers shocked a man to death. According to the blog Electronic Village, which tracks the statistics, in total there have been 544 taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001.
Despite the dangers, state police in Iowa would probably not be able to get sued for using a stun gun in most circumstances. However, there’s no practical way to resolve the multitude of issues that would arise if local police were sometimes considered state employees depending on what law they were enforcing, a judge wrote in the opinion that allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
“What if a local law enforcement officer is responding to an ordinance violation and investigating a possible violation of state criminal law at the same time? And who pays the bill or provides the defense when a local official enforcing state law is sued — the state or the local entity?” the judge wrote. “Iowa law contains no mechanism for resolving these disputes, which suggests the legislature didn’t anticipate them.”
“The decision makes it clear that municipal employees, including police officers, are not protected by the same tort immunities, such as assault and battery, as state employees,” Thomas’ attorney, Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek of the firm Kennedy, Cruise, Frey and Gelner Attorneys, said in a statement to the AP. “The impact on our case is that Josh Thomas will finally have an opportunity to let a jury decide whether the defendants committed the alleged torts against him.”