Friday, September 14, 2012
Ninth Circuit Allows Suit by Family of Woman Slain by Husband
Victim’s Parents Say Shooter’s Fellow Deputy Sheriffs Delayed Ambulance
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The parents of a woman shot to death by her deputy sheriff husband in 2006 may sue deputies they claim allowed her to die, rather than obtain immediate medical help, on order to protect their colleague, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The divided panel said deputies are not entitled to sovereign immunity because the plaintiffs presented a prima facie case that the defendants hastened Kristin Marie Maxwell-Bruce’s death by delaying an ambulance, in violation of her substantive due process right to “bodily security, Senior Judge Jerome Farris wrote.
Farris also agreed with U.S. District Judge John Houston of the Southern District of California that the deceased’s parents, Jim and Kay Maxwell, can sue deputies for forcibly separating them from each other and questioning them for five hours. The appellate jurist said that under the relevant case law prior to the December 2006 incident, the officers should have known that detaining witnesses—as opposed to suspects—for that long a period of time constituted an unreasonable seizure.
The Maxwells claim their daughter was alert and talking, despite massive damage after Lowell “Sam” Bruce shot her in the face in front of their 4-year-old son. Although her vital signs were normal when paramedics arrived, they claim, blunders and delays by the investigators, as well as the paramedics, led to her death an hour later.
She was 38 years old. Her husband negotiated a plea to a manslaughter charge and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Jim Maxwell claims he was pepper-sprayed, clubbed and handcuffed when he tried to leave sheriff’s custody to tell his wife that their only child was dead. The Maxwells sued the county, the deputies, and others in December 2007.
Among the defendants was the Alpine Fire Protection District and the Viejas Fire Department. The latter department serves the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and handles calls within the Alpine district pursuant to contract, and both departments had personnel on the scene.
The Maxwells sought damages from the fire department, the tribe, and the individual paramedics for gross negligence resulting in wrongful death. Houston dismissed all of the Viejas defendants on grounds of sovereign tribal immunity, but the appellate panel said there was no reason why tribal immunity should be extended to individual tribal employees for “allegedly grossly negligent acts committed outside tribal land pursuant to an agreement with a non-tribal entity.”
Lawyers Defend Clients
County lawyers defending the deputies said it was reasonable to separate and question the Maxwells, and that it was Jim Maxwell who acted unreasonably in refusing to accept deputies’ explanation of the need to obtain separate, untainted witness statements. Deputies in no way hampered the paramedics, who made every reasonable effort to save Kristin Maxwell-Bruce’s life, the county maintains.
Its lawyers have argued that sole responsibility for the victim’s death lies with her husband. Houston, however, and the appellate majority said that the case falls under an exception to the rule that police cannot be held liable for violating the civil rights of a person injured or killed by the criminal act of a third party.
The exception holds officers responsible for having created a danger to the victim beyond that caused by the crime, Farris explained, and in this case the Maxwells presented enough evidence of such a danger to avoid summary judgment.
“The Sheriff’s officers found Kristin facing a preexisting danger from her gunshot wound,” Farris wrote. “There is evidence they affirmatively increased that danger by preventing her ambulance from leaving. This arguably left Kristin worse off than if the ambulance had been allowed to bring her to an air ambulance that had advanced medical capabilities and was ready to fly her to a trauma center.”
Judge Richard Clifton joined Farris, but Judge Sandra Ikuta—while joining the majority on the tribal immunity issues—dissented from the rest of the decision, citing the maxim that “tragic facts make bad law.”
It is “clear,” Ikuta said, that the deputies were unaware that the victim’s situation was life-threatening, and that delay on their part did not contribute to her death because the ambulance was not ready to leave until seven minutes prior to the time it actually departed.
As for the Maxwells’ detention, Ikuta argued, it was reasonable under the circumstances.
The judge posited:
“The deputies arriving at the Maxwells’ residence faced a chaotic scene: a woman had been shot in the jaw; the perpetrator was still in the house; multiple ambulances and paramedics were responding to the scene; and frantic relatives were milling about. From the perspective of the deputies, it was more than merely reasonable to take steps to secure the crime scene and separate the witnesses—it was their duty. The majority has not pointed to a single case that clearly establishes that the deputies’ actions here violated the Maxwells’ constitutional rights.
The case is Maxwell v. County of San Diego, 10-56671.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company