W.Va. High Court Rules Man’s Lawsuit Can Proceed
The state’s Supreme Court ruled that a Middlebourne man’s lawsuit against a State Police trooper and a Tyler County Sheriff Deputy can move forward.
Last week in Charleston, the court ruled that Trooper Shaun Curran and Deputy Joshua Maston used excessive force when they arrested Thomas C. Wagner in 2009 as he was leaving a bar.
Justices upheld a decision made last year by Circuit Court Judge David Hummel that denied a request by the two officers to throw out the lawsuit against them, according to the court’s ruling issued Nov. 10. The law enforcement officers contend that their actions were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity.
“The circuit court determined that there were numerous disputes about the material facts supporting the immunity determination, disputes that should be resolved by a jury,” Justice Menis Ketchum wrote for the court.
The court’s opinion said Maston and Curran offer an account of the arrest that conflicts with Wagner’s story. Additionally, factual differences exist between the story told by Maston and the one told by Curran, and between each officer’s written statement made shortly after the arrest and the officer’s later deposition testimony, the opinion said.
“As we have previously discussed, the record details numerous significant questions of material fact concerning whether the officers violated clearly established constitutional rights,” Ketchum wrote. “Further, the record also suggests that the deliberate or reckless policies and actions of both the State Police and the Tyler County Sheriff’s Department may have caused or contributed to the violations of these established rights. On this record, we find no error in the circuit court’s decision to deny qualified immunity to the State Police or the Tyler County Sheriff’s Department.”
According to court documents, Curran contends that Wagner shouted obscenities and raised suspicions by running. The opinion said Maston’s testified, “Whenever somebody starts running from you after we tell them to stay there, then something’s not right.” Curran testified he decided to arrest Wagner “when he started to run” because “innocent people don’t run,” according to the opinion. Wagner denies cursing and says he was just trying to get out of the rain.
According to court documents, Wagner left Big C’s Lounge on Main Street in Middlebourne and started walking toward his apartment nearby around midnight Saturday, April 11, 2009. Wagner, who was then a fifty-year-old, owned the apartment building across from the Tyler County courthouse and owned and operated a local feed store.
Both Wagner and a bartender said he had two or three beers in the two or three hours he was at the bar, court papers said. As Wagner was walking home, he saw a State Police cruiser parked on Court Street with two officers inside who were watching him. He contends that he turned to the police cruiser and asked “if everything was okay” or if something was wrong that he should be aware of for himself and his tenants, court documents said.
When he did not receive a response to his inquiry, Wagner “asked again, is everything all right?”
Wagner observed the police cruiser window come halfway down, but heard no response, court papers said. When it began to rain harder, Wagner said he pulled his sweatshirt hood up over his head and “hustled down the street” to his residence. The next thing Wagner recalled was someone “crashing” into his back, grabbing his right arm and slamming his face into the spindles of the porch railing, according to court documents. He soon realized that he was being confronted by the two law enforcement officers he had seen moments before.
Maston allegedly pushed and grabbed Wagner during the arrest, court papers said. Curran was driving the State Police cruiser and helped Maston handcuff Wagner.
According to court documents, Wagner suffered a complete tear of the common extensor tendon and radial collateral ligament in his right elbow. He later underwent reconstructive surgery on his elbow with an allograft cadaver Achilles tendon, and healed wearing a cast and elbow brace.
Wagner was charged with fleeing on foot and public intoxication, disturbing the peace, obstructing and resisting an officer and refusing to take a breath test to determine the amount of alcohol in his system, according to court documents. Prosecution of the charges was assigned to a special prosecutor, Judith McCullough, who dismissed all of those charges in September 2010, according to the opinion. The charges were dismissed with prejudice, meaning they can’t be refiled. Six months later in March 2011, Wagner sued the two officers as well as their respective employers, the Tyler County Sheriff’s Department and State Police.
According to court documents, the complaint generally alleged that the officers worked together to intentionally, recklessly, and/or negligently attack, assault and/or batter Wagner and to intentionally inflict emotional distress.
The complaint also alleged that their two employers had failed to properly hire, train, discipline, and/or reprimand the officers, and had failed to adopt policies and customs to prevent similar conduct. Wagner’s complaint alleged that the acts and omissions of the defendants violated his rights under the West Virginia Constitution.