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Ortiz v. The City of Camden

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 8, 2015

MARIA ORTIZ, on behalf of the Estate of JORGE E. RIVERA, and on behalf of J.R., a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF CAMDEN, TROOPER DENNIS QUINN, INVESTIGATOR PETER LONGO, and INVESTIGATOR THOMAS DINUNZIO, Defendants.

RYAN MARC LOCKMAN, MARK B. FROST, MARK FROST & ASSOCIATES, PHILADELPHIA, PA, Attorneys for plaintiffs.

VINCENT J. RIZZO, JR. OFFICE OF THE N.J. ATTORNEY GENERAL RJ HUGHES JUSTICE COMPLEX, TRENTON, NJ, Attorney for New Jersey State Police and Dennis Quinn,

JOHN C. CONNELL, JOHN PATRICK KAHN, ARCHER & GREINER P.C., HADDONFIELD, NJ, Attorneys for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, Peter, Longo, and Thomas DiNunzio

JAMES H. WALLER HADDON HEIGHTS, N.J. Attorney for the City of Camden.

OPINION

NOEL L. HILLMAN, District Judge.

This case involves claims of excessive force and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need by law enforcement officers. Presently before the Court are the motions of certain defendants[1] for summary judgment in their favor. For the reasons expressed below, defendants' motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

On April 22, 2009, at the corner of 4th and York Streets in Camden, New Jersey, Jorge E. Rivera was approached by a person who wanted to buy drugs from him. At that time, defendants Dennis Quinn, a New Jersey State Trooper, Peter Longo, a Camden County Prosecutor's Office (CCPO) Investigator, and Thomas DiNunzio, also a CCPO investigator, were on patrol as part of the Joint Camden Task Force/High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. The officers observed the impending drug sale and approached Rivera and the other individual. When the officers neared Rivera, he attempted to swallow a small plastic bag filled with heroin. The officers were aware that Rivera swallowed the bag and repeatedly yelled for him to spit it out. After a struggle with the officers, Rivera became unresponsive. Emergency responders came to the scene and attempted to revive Rivera. He was transferred to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The coroner listed Rivera's cause of death as asphyxiation with a secondary cause of heroin toxicity.

The parties' versions of what transpired between when the officers first approached Rivera and when he later died differ significantly. Plaintiff, Maria Ortiz, who is the administrator of Rivera's estate and the mother of Rivera's minor son, plaintiff, J.R., claims that the officers grabbed Rivera, shoved him to the ground, and kicked and punched him, while Rivera was impassive and not resisting. Plaintiff[2] claims that even after the officers handcuffed and restrained Rivera, the officers continued to kick and punch Rivera's head and body. During this encounter, Rivera began to choke on the bag, which had become lodged in his throat, and plaintiff claims that the officers knew he was choking and unable to breathe, but they continued to beat him nevertheless. Plaintiff claims that even when the officers realized something was wrong with Rivera, they did not implement CPR themselves, and instead called for the incorrect medical response team (Basic Life Support rather than Advanced Life Support). When the BSL response team arrived, none of the officers told the technicians that Rivera had put a plastic bag in his mouth. Plaintiff claims that critical omission wasted precious time during which no oxygen flowed to Rivera's brain and when the bag was finally pulled out of his throat it was too late.

In contrast to plaintiff's version of events, defendants contend that Rivera, who was 5'8" and over 300 pounds, resisted arrest and swung and kicked at the officers. Defendants contend that Rivera was lying still after he was handcuffed, but they saw him breathing, although it was labored. Defendants state that they called for the BLS response team because they had thought Rivera had ingested the drugs and did not realize that he had the bag stuck in his throat. When the ALS response team arrived, only then did it become apparent to the BLS team that a bag was stuck in Rivera's throat when one of the technicians saw the bag and pulled it out. At that point, Rivera had gone into cardiac arrest and soon thereafter died on the way to the hospital.

Plaintiff claims that defendants violated Rivera's Fourth Amendment rights, and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, by using excessive force to effect his arrest. Plaintiff also claims that defendants violated Rivera's Fourteenth Amendment rights, and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, by being deliberately indifferent to his serious medical need. Plaintiff also asserts claims against defendants for assault and battery and wrongful death.

Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all of plaintiff's claims. Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff's constitutional and New Jersey Civil Rights Act claims, and that plaintiff's state law claims are barred by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. Plaintiff has opposed defendants' motion as to these claims.[3]

DISCUSSION

A. ...


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