United States District Court, D. New Jersey
RUTH TUITE, as Administrator ad Prosequendum for the Estate of Robert John Tuite, Jr., Plaintiff,
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DIVISION OF STATE POLICE OF THE NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF LAW AND PUBLIC SAFETY, JASON SOWINSKI, a New Jersey State Trooper, IAN ROSENBERG, a New Jersey State Trooper, JOSHUA COPPOLA, a New Jersey State Trooper, JOHN DOE 1-10, and JOHN DOE CORPORATION 1-10, Defendants.
KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.
Plaintiff Ruth Tuite, as Administrator ad Prosequendum for the Estate of Robert John Tuite, Jr. ("Tuite"), commenced this Section 1983 wrongful death action against the State of New Jersey, the State Police of the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety ("NJSP") (collectively, "State defendants"), and New Jersey State Troopers Jason Sowinksi, Ian Rosenberg, and Joshua Coppola (collectively, the "Troopers"). The action arises from Tuite's death following his arrest by the Troopers. The complaint asserts claims under the U.S. Constitution, state statutory law, and state common law. Now before the Court are four motions for summary judgment, one filed by the State defendants and one by each of the three Troopers. For the reasons set forth below, this Court will grant the State defendants' motion and deny the motions filed by the Troopers.
At approximately 11:01 p.m. on December 28, 2008, Trooper Sowinski observed a white sedan stopped in the middle of the northbound lane of Interstate 95. (Dkt. No. 51-4, ¶21). After positioning his patrol car behind the sedan, Trooper Sowinski approached the driver's side window and saw Tuite behind the wheel. (Id. at ¶24) Tuite was initially unresponsive, but Trooper Sowinksi eventually roused him and ordered him to move the sedan over to the right shoulder of the highway. (Id.)
Once on the shoulder, Sowinski learned that Tuite was driving with a suspended license. Sowinski radioed for assistance, and Troopers Coppola and Rosenberg soon arrived. (Id. at ¶¶31-33) Trooper Sowinski suspected that Tuite was intoxicated, and ordered him out of his car. (Id. at ¶34) Tuite failed a battery of field sobriety tests, and Sowinski advised him that he would be placed under arrest for driving while intoxicated.
Trooper Sowinski began to handcuff Tuite, and Tuite began to resist. (Dkt. No. 59-3, at 9). Sowinski managed to handcuff Tuite's right wrist, but he refused to place his arms behind his back and his left wrist remained free. Tuite struggled to break free of the three troopers, who attempted to hold him in place. (Dkt. No. 51-8) The troopers feared that both they and Tuite, who stood six feet two inches tall and weighed over two hundred fifty pounds, might stumble out of the narrow shoulder lane and into traffic. Despite repeated commands to stop resisting, Tuite continued to try to wriggle loose. Trooper Rosenberg compared Tuite to "a football player that you're trying to tackle...and the tacklers are holding onto the guy and [he's] just kinda dragging them along." (Dkt. No. 59-3, at 10)
The scuffle lasted about ninety seconds (Dkt. No. 51-4, ¶44). The troopers ultimately subdued Tuite by pushing him toward the guardrail on the right side of the shoulder lane. They pressed him forward over the railing in order to expose his arms. (Dkt. No. 52-1, ¶¶31-32) Tuite was then successfully handcuffed. Trooper Coppola noticed blood on his own hands and on Tuite's face, and the troopers called for an ambulance. (Coppola Dep., 43:9-12, 53:16-23; Dkt. No. 51-4, ¶45)
The Troopers state that, although Tuite was handcuffed, it was unsafe to try to move him to a patrol car because he was "kicking his legs and attempting to stand up" from the guardrail. (Dkt. No. 51-4, ¶49). To maintain control, Trooper Rosenberg brought Tuite to the ground and positioned him face down on his stomach. (Dkt. No. 56-1, ¶51; Rosenberg Dep., 33:5-17) Rosenberg then placed his right knee between Tuite's shoulder blades and pushed down on his shoulders with his hands. At the same time, Trooper Coppola held Tuite's legs. (Dkt. No. 56-1, ¶ 53; Rosenberg Dep., 34:10-18; 41:7-16)
Up to this point-i.e., the point that Tuite was placed on the ground-images from a dashboard video camera in one of the patrol cars capture the events. After that, the view is blocked by Tuite's parked car. The camera did, however, continue to record audio.
After being held down on the ground for several minutes, Tuite went silent and stopped moving. That prompted the troopers to check his medical condition. (Dkt. No. 59-7, at 15; Rosenberg Dep., 42:16-25). Trooper Coppola described Tuite's behavior as abruptly transitioning from "from kicking and flailing and yelling to nothing." (Dkt. No. 59-7, at 16). Concerned that Tuite's silence might indicate that he was having trouble breathing, Troopers Rosenberg and Coppola stopped restraining him and propped him up against the guardrail. (Id.; Coppola Dep., 60:3-7)
In the defendants' version of events, the troopers detected a pulse. They concluded from the rising and falling of his chest that Tuite was still breathing. (Coppola Dep., 61:11-19; Dkt. 52-4, ¶43). Tuite then began drifting in and out of consciousness (Dkt. No. 51-4, ¶72), and Trooper Sowinski called to expedite the ambulance that was already on its way. Before the ambulance arrived, Trooper Coppola administered first aid by placing an oxygen mask over Tuite's mouth.
The plaintiffs version is different. The plaintiff contends that Tuite can be heard on the dashboard recording exclaiming "You guys are killing me!" (Dkt. No. 57-1, ¶63) Despite that warning, Rosenberg continued to push his knee between Tuite's shoulder blades and Coppola continued to restrain his legs. According to the plaintiff, when Tuite stopped making noise, it was because he had stopped breathing. (Dkt. 56-1, at 12-13). According to the plaintiff, Coppola then let approximately ten minutes go by before applying an oxygen mask. (Dkt. 57-1, ¶ 119)
The ambulance arrived. The EMTs determined that Tuite was not breathing and that there was a "bluish tinge to the area around his lips." (Idler Dep., 17:4-18) Tuite went into cardiac arrest on the way to Englewood Hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival at 12:31 a.m. (Id. at 19:12-16; 21:5-22; Dkt. No. 51-9, at 14)
The autopsy report gave the cause of death as "cardiorespiratory arrest following physical restraint and struggle" while under the influence of alcohol and a prescription muscle relaxer. As contributory causes the report lists "asthma, " "stenosis of larynx, " and "obesity." The plaintiff maintains that the manner in which the troopers held Tuite to the ground caused him to die of positional asphyxiation, a form of suffocation that occurs when a person's position prevents him from breathing. According to the plaintiff, the troopers deliberately withheld from the EMTs the information that Tuite had been held face down with a knee to his back. That omitted information would have been relevant to Tuite's treatment, and it also distorted the conclusions of the autopsy report. (Dkt. No. 57-1, ¶¶ 183-87)
This Court has jurisdiction over the plaintiff's federal-law claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. It has supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs ...