TAMPA — A family's effort to hold the Tampa Police Department responsible for the death of a diabetic man during a traffic stop has shifted from federal to circuit court.
Lena Young, the widow of longtime Tampa Heights resident and community activist Arthur Green Jr., has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Tampa on behalf of his estate. The suit, filed this month in Hillsborough Circuit Court, accuses two officers of using excessive force while trying to arrest Green and failing to recognize he was in the grips of a medical episode. He stopped breathing and later died.
The filing comes after a federal judge dismissed an eight-count complaint filed in U.S. district court. In that ruling, the judge found that two of the counts — the allegations of wrongful death — should fall under the jurisdiction of the state court.
The litigation stems from the events of April 16, 2014, when Green, 63, began having medical issues while driving his Lincoln pickup truck on Central Avenue in Seminole Heights. His car veered and sideswiped two oncoming vehicles, which Officer Tony Portman witnessed.
The police report said Green was combative and resisted when ordered to get out of the truck. He asked why he was being stopped and said he didn't do anything wrong, according to police accounts. Portman opened the door and tried to pull Green from the truck, but he struggled with Portman and backup officers were called.
Officer Matt Smith pulled up and worked with Portman to get handcuffs on Green. Smith recognized the symptoms of a diabetic episode and suggested Green may be in a medical emergency, police said, though Green was not wearing the bracelet typically worn by diabetics to identify themselves.
The officers removed the handcuffs and called for an ambulance. At that point, police said, Green stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital about an hour later.
The wrongful-death complaint filed in circuit court, like the federal lawsuit, says the officers should have asked Green about his medical history and called for emergency medical help immediately. Instead, the suit says, Smith restrained Green in a prone position, allowing Portman to place his weight on Green's back. The actions deprived Green of oxygen, the suit states, and the officers failed to call for medical help in a timely manner.
"Not until approximately 4:48 p.m., nearly eight minutes into the incident and four minutes after officers noted that they needed to call emergency medical help, did any of the officers begin to administer CPR chest compressions to Mr. Green," the suit states.
The suit also claims the department failed to train Portman and Smith on how to identify and handle a person having a diabetic episode.
A department death investigation and internal affairs review cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Portman is still a corporal assigned to the DUI unit. Smith has since retired after 20 years with the department.
The department does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
In dismissing the federal lawsuit, which listed Portman and Smith as defendants along with the Police Department, U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. Scriven ruled that the facts didn't show Portman and Smith acted with "deliberate indifference."
Scriven concluded there was no evidence to show the officers were aware at the time of their initial encounter with Green that his medical issue would result in a serious risk of harm if not immediately treated. When Green became unresponsive, Scriven wrote, the officers called for help within three minutes.
Scriven also concluded Portman and Smith are protected by so-called qualified immunity, which shields a law enforcement officer from being sued for alleged constitutional violations as long as the officer's conduct doesn't violate someone's statutory or constitutional rights.
As for the excessive force allegation, Scriven concluded that the actions taken to restrain Green were reasonable given the officers' limited knowledge of his medical state when they first encountered him.
In the circuit court suit, Young is seeking a jury trial and financial damages for the estate. Her attorney, Paul Rebein of Tampa, has filed an appeal of Scriven's ruling and said he is optimistic about the family's chances in state court.
Kurt Young, the oldest of Green's seven children, said the family was disappointed in Scriven's ruling and especially in her decision not to hold a hearing. He said the family is confident they will eventually prevail.
"We have to remain vigilant and confident because we know very clearly that Arthur Green Jr. did not deserve to die in that manner," he said. "We know that all he needed was to be treated as a motorist who was in need of help from Tampa police rather than be treated as a common criminal and taken from us."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.