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Corrections Law
for Jails, Prisons and Detention Facilities


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Positional, Restraint, and Compressional Asphyxia

     Monthly Law Journal Article: Restraint and Asphyxia: Part One Restraint Ties, 2008 (12) AELE Mo. L.J. 101.
     Monthly Law Journal Article: Restraint and Asphyxia: Part Two Compressional Asphyxia, 2009 (1) AELE Mo. L.J. 101.

     An arrestee who appeared intoxicated actively resisted officers both during the process of being arrested and when taken into jail. He was handcuffed and pepper sprayed. Then, at the jail, when he continued to resist, he was held down and a Taser was applied to him three times in the stun mode. He was held face down, ceased breathing, and was taken to a hospital where he died. A medical expert for the plaintiff expressed the opinion that his cause of death was traumatic asphyxia due to compression of his neck and back while being restrained. A federal appeals court ruled that the defendant officers were entitled to qualified immunity when there was insufficient evidence to support the strangulation theory, since only the expert's conclusory opinion supported it. That opinion was contradicted by other evidence, including the testimony of all the officers and two EMTs. Burdine v. Sandusky County, Ohio, #12-3672, 2013 U.S. App. Lexis 7691, 2013 Fed. App. 376N, 2013 WL 1606906 (Unpub. 6th Cir.).
    A woman died after being placed in four-point restraints and put into a vehicle face down for transport to jail. Upholding summary judgment for the defendant deputies and county in a federal civil rights lawsuit, the court, assuming the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, assumed that the decedent died from positional asphyxia. The plaintiffs, however, failed to show that the use of the restraints was unnecessary, or excessively disproportionate to the resistance the deputies faced from the prisoner, so that no reasonable jury could have found that the deputies used excessive force to subdue her. The plaintiff also failed to sufficiently prove a claim for alleged inadequate monitoring of the prisoner during transport. Loggins v. Carroll County, Mississippi, #08-60516, 2009 U.S. App. Lexis 23730 (5th Cir.).
     Although a man suffering from delusions attacked a psychiatric hospital staff member, the defendants knew that restraining him face-down on the floor and putting pressure on a his back posed a substantial risk of asphyxiation. "Despite knowledge of this risk, defendants chose to restrain [the deceased] using these dangerous restraint techniques. Their actions were objectively unreasonable given the fact that [an] eyewitness testified that [the] defendants continued to restrain [him] in this dangerous position ..." He had been brought to the hospital for a mental health assessment by Sheriff's Department personnel who found him wandering the countryside. During the attempt to restrain him, he stopped breathing, never regained consciousness, and died. The appeals court rejected claims by certain defendants for qualified immunity in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the decedent's estate. Lanman v. Hinson, #06-2263, 2008 U.S. App. Lexis 12682, 2008 Fed App. 0212P (6th Cir.).
     Correctional officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on claim that they continued to use force against detainee after they had subdued him, resulting in his death from positional asphyxia. They were also not entitled to qualified immunity on the claim that they waited fourteen minutes after he became unconscious and stopped breathing, to summon medical assistance. Bozeman v. Orum, No. 04-11073, 422 F.3d 1265 (11th Cir. 2005). [2006 JB Feb]
      Correctional officers did not use excessive force in restraining a prisoner in his cell when he was obviously undergoing a mental breakdown of some sort and some level of force was needed to restore order, but deceased prisoner's estate could proceed with its claim that the officers were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs by failing to attempt to resuscitate him at once after they realized he was not breathing. Bozeman v. Orum, 199 F. Supp. 2d 1216 (M.D. Ala. 2002). [2002 JB Sep]
    269:75 Jury awards almost $13 million to family of schizophrenic man who died of asphyxiation after being placed in restraints face down; trial judge also awards $343,953.70 in attorneys' fees, but rejects one plaintiff's attorney's request for fees of $1,000 per hour. Swans v. City of Lansing, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20043 (W.D. Mich. 1998).
     263:169 Trial court, relying on new study, concludes that "positional asphyxia" was not cause of arrestee's death, questions entire scientific basis for "positional asphyxia." Price v. Co. of San Diego, 990 F.Supp. 1230 (S.D. Cal. 1998). » Editor's Note: The study relied on by the trial court in the decision above has been published as JL Clausen, TC Chan, T Neuman, & GM Vilke, "Restraint Position and Positional Asphyxia" in Vol. 30 Annals of Emergency Medicine, p. 578-586 (Nov. 1997).

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