In Washington, D.C. a 26-year-old man died after asphyxiation following being restrained by three off-duty police officers. He was accused of watching a movie inside a mall movie theater without having paid for a ticket. The man had Down syndrome. The family of the disabled man has subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming damages from wrongful death against each of the off-duty police officers individually as well as naming the movie cinema.
The physical and mental health of the deceased person does factor into a wrongful death claim. The issue presented in this wrongful death lawsuit is whether the off-duty police owed a different type of duty to the man than the one owed to a person without a developmental disability.
The legal concept of the “eggshell plaintiff” refers to a situation where the defendant is responsible for the resulting unintended injuries to a plaintiff, even if that plaintiff reacts more severely or with greater sensitivity than the average person. Normally this theory applies where the defendant has no reason to know that the plaintiff has some innate sensitivity. Here, however, the family of the deceased man claimed that the arresting officers and movie theater owed the man a heightened duty of care. The theater and police knew that the young man had Down syndrome; further, the defendants should have known that this required treating their son as having innate physical limits, such as heart, breathing, and circulation problems.
The general public’s knowledge of the physical challenges faced by individuals with developmental disabilities may be growing though limited, but the situation was handled by police who are trained to identify ways of protecting the general public welfare. One can argue that individuals with Down’s and other mental and physical handicaps are integrated sufficiently into society that the off-duty police officers should have known that keeping the man restrained and face down would have compromised his ability to breathe properly.
The question of what duty a defendant owes to the plaintiff is a threshold issue in any negligence claim. Discussing the viability of a personal injury and wrongful death claim with an experienced wrongful death attorney can explore the likelihood of recovering damages following a loss.