Athens-Limestone Hospital is not part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed for a mentally ill man who died days after being Tasered at the hospital by an Athens police officer.
Attorneys for Dorothy Nelson of Athens filed the lawsuit in federal court Friday against the city of Athens and two Athens police officers over the death of 49-year-old Randy Nelson on Feb. 8, 2016.
Nelson is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys fees and litigation costs.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court because Nelson claims Randy's civil rights were violated.
Birmingham lawyer Martin Weinberg and national civil rights attorney Devon Jacob of Pennsylvania are representing Nelson, who is administrator of her son's estate.
In a statement issued Friday, the attorneys said, “Randy Nelson’s mother brought him to the hospital in the hope that he would receive proper medical care. Instead, police officers, who were improperly supervised and trained, killed him. This type of incident involving the mentally ill happens far too often.”
The attorneys also said the lawsuit was filed, “to bring justice and closure to the family” and to “help correct the mistreatment of the mentally ill by law enforcement throughout this country.”
Although Nelson holds the city liable, she specifically accuses Athens Police Officer Greg Lott of excessive force, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, denial of medical care, assault and other violations for using a Taser on her son. (A Taser fires electrical probes that give and electric shock and cause temporary paralysis.) She accuses Officer Dusty Meadows of failing to stop Lott from Tasering her son.
Mom seeking help
According to the lawsuit, Nelson took her son to the hospital on Feb. 3 because he “had been dealing with a host of mental impairments, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” As a result of his illness, the lawsuit says, Randy was afraid of medical personnel and “began waiving his arms slowly and not consenting to a forced injection.”
Nelson questions why law enforcement were called to help at the hospital that day, saying the hospital “inexplicably” called police to restrain her son so he could be injected with medication. When police arrived, they allegedly “escalated the situation by applying physical force.”
In the lawsuit, Nelson says Lott Tasered Randy's back “even though he did not present a danger to himself or others.”
Shortly after Randy died, Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson released a video of the Tasering, which shows Randy in a room at A-LH. It shows Randy is combative, swinging at anyone who approaches and grabbing and throwing items from the counter. At one point in the video, he kicks at a doctor who is trying to pass by him and exit the room. An officer tells Nelson they will have to Taser Randy, and she says okay. Immediately after being Tasered, Randy falls to the floor but continues to struggle with officers and medical staff until he is finally handcuffed.
Johnson said at the time of the video's release that his officers followed procedure and the Taser was correctly deployed.
The lawsuit claims “a repeated cycling of the Taser and use of force” caused Randy to go into respiratory and cardiac arrest. It states that although resuscitation was initially successful, Randy suffered “substantial medical injury” and died of his injuries five days later on Feb. 8.
Nelson questions whether a Taser should have been deployed so medical staff could inject Randy.
In the release, the attorneys said the city of Athens ignored the manufacturer's “warnings that the Taser — even when properly used — can cause death” and that the city “failed to adopt a proper policy and provide proper training” to the officers who used it.
They also said, “Most police departments lack proper training in approaching and handling mentally ill people.”
When asked why the city and the officers were part of the lawsuit but not the hospital, Weinberg said they may consider adding it depending on what is learned in the discovery phase of the case. Weinberg said Nelson had not signed any documents that would relieve the hospital of responsibility nor had she reached a settlement with the hospital.
Alabama has closed three mental hospitals since 2012 and cut funding for other mental health services, often leaving emergency treatment for the mentally ill to their families and hometown hospitals. In many cases, law enforcement officers — whose job is to enforce the law — become the front-line care for the mentally ill until professional help becomes available.