U.S. 5th Circuit holds the “loss of chance” doctrine is not applicable in a §1983 context and this wrongful death action

Slade v. City of Marshall No. 15-40517 (5th Cir., February 10, 2016)

This is a §1983 wrongful death case where the 5th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Slade constitutional claims by the trial court.

When City officers were dispatched to a disturbance they found a naked and agitated Marcus Slade having a physical altercation with a man who was seated in a car. When Slade approached the officers aggressively, Officer Johnson deployed his Taser. It took several officers to handcuff Slade and put him in the patrol car where he was transported to the jail which was five minutes away. The officers noted Slade was speaking throughout the drive. However, upon arriving at the jail they noticed he was non-responsive. They performed CPR and summoned paramedics, but Slade died. The death was later determined to be from a PCP overdose. Slade’s mother sued. The City won on summary judgment based on a lack of causation and Slade’s mother appealed.

Under the applicable law, a plaintiff seeking to recover must demonstrate that the defendant’s wrongful actions more likely than not caused the decedent’s death—not just that they reduced the decedent’s chance of survival by some lesser degree. Slade first argues the standard does not apply if there is an obvious need for medical treatment which is ignored. The court held the 6th Circuit opinion relied upon by Slade is not applicable since it was not a case of causation. Slade asserts that the Court should apply the “loss of chance” doctrine as a matter of federal common law. Under this doctrine, “[i]t is not necessary to prove that a [plaintiff] would have survived if proper treatment had been given, but only that there would have been a chance of survival.”  However, the 5th Circuit held §1983 seeks to deter abuses of power that have actually occurred and compensate victims who have actually been injured by such abuses.  The traditional causation requirement is a reasonable way to identify when liability is appropriate.  Therefore, the “’loss of chance’ doctrine is ‘not relevant’ in the § 1983 context.” Summary judgment is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Judge Higginbotham, Judge Owen and Judge Elrod. Opinion by Judge Higginbotham. The attorney listed for the City is William Todd Hughey.  The attorney listed for Slade is Darren Keith Coleman.