Police Seek Dismissal of Wrongful Death Suit

Posted February 25, 2005 at 5:36pm

The Capitol Police Department asked a federal judge Thursday to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the agency, asserting that a Maryland man who died while in custody in early 2004 had acted in a negligent manner that contributed to his death.

The request, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of the Capitol Police, is the law enforcement agency’s first public response to the lawsuit filed in November 2004 by the family of Brandywine, Md., resident Gary Thompson.

Thompson died Feb. 9, 2004, after he was arrested by Capitol Police following a traffic accident outside Union Station.

His widow, Lois Thompson, is seeking $50 million in compensatory damages, as well as legal fees, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In its response, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asserts that the Thompson family’s claims of wrongful death should be disqualified under a legal doctrine known as “contributory negligence.”

“[A]mong other things, Plaintiff operated a motor vehicle when he knew or had reason to know that his medical condition was or might render it unsafe for him to do so,” wrote the U.S. Attorney’s office. The response also stated that Thompson failed to comply “with the lawful order or reasonable requests of a police officer.”

The U.S. Attorney did not cite a specific medical condition, but according to documents filed by the Thompson family, Gary Thompson suffered from a a diabetic seizure shortly before the traffic accident occurred.

Thompson’s attorney, Jimmy Bell, did not return a telephone call Friday seeking comment.

In the initial complaint, Bell asserted that Capitol Police violated “proper arrest procedures,” which resulted in Thompson’s death.

According to the lawsuit, Capitol Police officers responded to an accident in which a van driven by Thompson collided with a taxicab near the corner of Columbus Circle and E Street Northeast and found Thompson still in his vehicle, hunched over the steering wheel.

The law enforcement officers attempted to remove Thompson from his vehicle and when he refused, because he was “in a medical crisis,” Capitol Police began to hit Thompson to force him to release the steering wheel, the lawsuit states.

As the struggle continued, Thompson became disoriented, began to yell, and then grabbed onto the driver’s side door before officers removed him from the vehicle.

At that point, the lawsuit asserts, officers wrestled with Thompson in an attempt to handcuff him, “forcibly holding the decedent down.”

“Gary Thompson, attempted to raise his head and upper torso in an apparent attempt to breathe, but the officers forced the decedent back to the ground,” Bell wrote. “District of Columbia paramedics were called to the scene … [W]hen the District of Columbia paramedics arrived, the decedent, Gary Thompson, was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground with officers on top of him.”

According to the lawsuit, when paramedics arrived they were unable to locate Thompson’s pulse and transported him to the Washington Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead.

“Defendant U.S. Capitol Police had a duty to follow proper arrest procedures. These arrest procedures entailed placing the handcuffed decedent face-up on the ground,” Bell wrote. “Defendant breached this duty by placing the decedent, who had just suffered a diabetic seizure, face down on the ground, and having officers on top of him while he was handcuffed.”

In its response, the Capitol Police largely disputed the prosecutor’s version of events, noting that officers did “forcibly” remove Thompson from his vehicle, but only after he failed to comply with requests to do so.

“[The defendant] [a]dmits that, at times, in response to Gary Thompson’s refusal to comply with instructions and continuing to resist physically, three U.S. Capitol Police Officers applied reasonable pressure using their chests, arms, and hands to Gary Thompson’s shoulder, arms, legs in an attempt to control him and to prevent him from injuring himself and others, including the U.S. Capitol Police Officers,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote.

Although the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiners classified Thompson’s death as a “homicide,” caused by “positional asphyxia,” the U.S. Attorney noted that other factors were also listed in Thompson’s death.