• June 12, 2015

Cemetery Tombstone GraveyardThe underlying facts of Sheeley v. City of Austin, et al., will never be known because there are conflicting eye witness accounts. But there are some basic circumstances about which all witnesses agreed.

In late 2011, police officers were called to a home in Austin, Minnesota in response to a 911 call that someone in the home was having a seizure. Police and paramedics arrived at the home, went into the basement where they heard sounds. There was Scott Sheeley, without his pants on, swinging them in the air, acting erratically, and otherwise acting threateningly toward his brother Dustin, also in the basement. Scott Sheeley was eventually hand-cuffed and arrested. It was a pretty harrowing situation. Whether Scott Sheeley was having some kind of on-going seizure, drug-fueled mania, or a psychotic break of some kind, we cannot say. But officers had to wrestle Scott Sheeley into handcuffs, used a taser against him several times, and Scott Sheeley kept struggling even then in his handcuffs. He had to be sedated and, soon after that, he stopped breathing and had no pulse. He was revived and later reported no recollection of the events of that day.

In May of 2012, Dustin testified in an affidavit that the police used excessive force in subduing Scott. Scott brought a lawsuit in late 2012.

Scott is now dead (at age 51) from “undetermined causes.” Dustin is also now dead (at 41). Can Scott’s mother and Scott’s son, co-personal representatives of his estate, pursue the excessive force lawsuit against the city of Austin and the police officers in Scott’s name, with their one witness, Scott’s brother, Dustin, who has since died? In Minnesota, can someone recover damages for pain and suffering of another person who has died?

As is evident from the linked decision of U.S. District Court Judge Ann D. Montgomery (D. Minn.), these are not easy questions to answer but Judge Montgomery’s ultimate decision on these questions in this tragic case, at least, is “No.”

As for the damages question, this decision is important to those analyzing federal 1983 actions and state law limits on the survival of claims on the death of a party (as to both WHO can make the claims and WHAT kinds of damages they can recover).

As for the ability of co-representatives of an estate having standing to bring a federal action, Judge Montgomery reasoned that the Court had to look to Minnesota state law and, under Minnesota state law, only a person who had “trustee” status under Minn. Stat. 573.02 could bring the action, a status that Plaintiff did not have.

Finally, even if Plaintiffs were the properly appointed trustee for Scott Sheeley, “[s]imply put, the evidentiary hurdles facing Plaintiffs are overwhelming.”

First and foremost, their only witness is dead. Also, the circumstances of the case, as best as one can determine (while recognizing inevitable uncertainty), seem to strongly reflect a violent and difficult situation that law enforcement had to wade into and resolve. Without any evidence or testimony from anyone but the police officers and paramedics themselves, all of which supported their defenses, I think Judge Montgomery correctly saw that no reasonable jury would find against the officers on the claims against them.

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