Restraint-Related Asphyxia in Jail: Proving Causation and Defeating Summary Judgment

Restraint related asphyxia is a topic that’s often discussed in the context of police brutality cases. The death of George Floyd is a perfect example. And, unfortunately, there are many other such examples. Restraint related asphyxia in excessive force cases can occur when police officers interfere with a person’s ability to breath (or when they interfere with blood flow to or from the brain), by pressing on a person’s chest or back, or by occluding the blood vessels in the area of a person’s neck. At Budge & Heipt, we’ve successfully handled a number of excessive force cases involving asphyxia by police.

Asphyxia can also occur in the context of in-custody jail restraint by corrections officers. The basic concept is the same. When jail officers use too much force on a jail inmate or detainee, they can be liable for excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth or Eighth Amendments to the Constitution.

The jail death case of Sterling Higgins, which was handled by the lawyers at Budge & Heipt, is one such example. The case involved events in a small jail in Tennessee. Mr. Higgins was arrested on charges related to trespassing and taken to the small county jail. Almost immediately after he entered the jail, a scuffle ensued involving Mr. Higgins and jail guards. Mr. Higgins was taken to the ground. Minutes later, he was unresponsive. And shortly after that, he was dead. What happened? And why did Mr. Higgins die?

Budge & Heipt was able to obtain and analyze video evidence from the jail’s internal surveillance cameras in order to shed light on the events leading up to and surrounding Mr. Higgins’s death. By meticulously analyzing the video, and with the help of a forensic video specialist, we were able to piece the events together. The video showed that shortly after Mr. Higgins was taken to the floor of the jail, one of the jail officers gripped the area of Mr. Higgins’s neck and/or throat for several minutes. Here is one image captured from the video’s surveillance camera, depicting what occurred:


The still image above quite clearly shows the officer’s left hand gripping the area of Mr. Higgins’s neck and/or throat as he lay prone on the ground, underneath the officer. Further, an autopsy showed that Mr. Higgins sustained trauma to the tissues of his neck, with significant bleeding into the muscle layers of his neck, near the airway.

However, autopsy records also showed that Mr. Higgins had methamphetamine in his system. With that information, the defense sought to argue that Mr. Higgins’s death was not caused by the excessive force of the officer, but was instead the result of methamphetamine intoxication.

Proving causation in cases such as these is essential. And in order to prove causation, reliable medical testimony is often required.

We retained two prominent forensic pathologists to review the evidence and offer their expert opinions about the cause and manner of Mr. Higgins’s death. At our request, these medical experts prepared comprehensive written expert reports. One such report concluded that Mr. Higgins’s death was a homicide and that he died from asphyxia with positional and mechanical components: Estate of Higgins – Report of Allecia Wilson, MD. Critical to this expert’s opinion was the video itself, as well as autopsy findings relating to hemorrhage of muscle tissue in the neck and other physical findings. Another such report similarly concluded that Mr. Higgins died from asphyxiation involving neck compression and that the death should be classified as a homicide: Estate of Higgins – Report of J.C. Upshaw Downs MD – Redacted.

The defense asked the court to dismiss the case — a legal procedure known as a motion for “summary judgment.” In excessive force cases, including jail wrongful death cases, defendants will often ask the court to dismiss the case on summary judgment so that it cannot be heard by a jury. At Budge & Heipt, we have defeated such motions time and time again. But doing so requires great effort. In the Higgins case, we submitted numerous exhibits, along with a comprehensive legal brief in which we persuasively argued to the court that the case should not be dismissed: Plaintiff’s Response to Obion County Defendants’ MSJ

Our legal briefing, which was 40 pages long and filled with legal and factual citations, convincingly explained that the defendants faced legal consequences for their actions in causing Mr. Higgins’ death from excessive force, for failing to intervene to prevent the use of that force, and by failing to take appropriate action to get him prompt medical attention after he went unconscious and limp in the officer’s grasp. Despite the arguments of the defense, the federal district court agreed with almost all our arguments and denied the vast majority of the defendants’ summary judgment motion in a comprehensive and well-reasoned legal decision: Estate of Higgins v. Obion Co., et al — Order on Summary Judgment

Shortly after the court denied the defendants’ summary judgment motion, the case confidentially settled.

Restraint related asphyxia happens far too often. When it does, the hard work of experienced attorneys can often make all the difference.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.