A federal judge in Maryland ruled Thursday that a wrongful-death lawsuit against three Frederick County sheriff’s deputies can move forward over claims of gross negligence for forcibly removing a young man with Down syndrome from a movie theater.
Robert Ethan Saylor died, which generated outrage among parents of children with Down syndrome and advocacy groups across the country.
U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson was just as scathing, writing in his 54-page ruling that “a man died over the cost of a movie ticket.”
The Saylor family’s claims that Maryland authorities failed to adequately train the deputies to handle people with disabilities can remain a part of the suit, Nickerson ruled. The judge said Regal Cinemas was not liable and dismissed claims against the company.
Nickerson questioned the quick escalation of force used to remove Saylor, 26, who had gone with an aide in January 2013 to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” and refused to leave after the movie had ended, wanting to see it again. Saylor had an IQ of 40, and his aide warned the off-duty deputies, who were moonlighting as private security guards at the mall where the theater is located, that he would resist if touched by strangers.
The judge said the deputies could have waited for his caregiver or mother to coax him out of his seat or allow them to buy a ticket for the next show and let him stay.
“When the deputies were presented with these various alternatives, there was no emergent situation requiring any rapid response on their part,” Nickerson wrote.
Joseph B. Espo, the attorney for the Saylor family, praised the ruling as a “strong affirmation of the rights of individuals to live in the world and take part in the community.” He said it “affirms the fact that if the state fails to train its employees, then the state may be responsible.”
Daniel Karp, a Baltimore lawyer for the deputies, noted that Nickerson mentioned several discrepancies over important facts, such as when Saylor was handcuffed and how he tumbled from his seat to the floor. Karp said that after discovery — lengthy interviews with witnesses that could bring additional facts to light — he would again file for summary judgment, a bid to have the case thrown out before a jury trial.
For now, Nickerson’s ruling leaves the suit filed by the Saylor family largely intact, with the most important claims still pending against the state over training and against the deputies for gross negligence, battery, wrongful death and violation of the man’s civil rights. The Maryland attorney general’s office, representing the state, declined to comment.
The deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — were cleared of wrongdoing in an internal affairs investigation, and a county grand jury determined that no criminal charges were warranted.
The incident began after Saylor had finished watching the movie. His aide went to get a car, and Saylor slipped back into the theater to watch the movie again.
The manager told him he needed to buy another ticket or leave and he called the deputies for help. According to the suit, the caregiver warned the manager and the first deputy who arrived that Saylor, who stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 300 pounds — would “freak out” if touched.
Nickerson said the theater manager was correct to call security. But he questioned the deputies’ response. The judge said that Saylor did resist attempts to remove him but “responded in precisely the way” his aide “informed the deputies he would respond.”
The judge found it reasonable that Saylor would suffer “significant injury” when “the decision was made to drag an obese individual with a mental disability out of his chair and down a ramp.”
The judge noted the deputies’ defense: that they followed training in steadily escalating force to remove Saylor from his seat.
Once he refused their orders, it was reasonable to arrest him, and that made it reasonable for them to use force to handcuff him behind his back, he added. Saylor ended up on the floor, under the three deputies, and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
Nickerson said that “perhaps the most significant unsettled question is the reason for the escalation in the deputies’ use of force.” He said that escalation “increased dramatically.”
But he also noted there are several discrepancies concerning the incident, such as precisely when during the struggle Saylor was handcuffed and how he came out of his chair and ended up on the floor.
Karp said those are significant issues. “You can’t tell from the allegations how many times the deputies tried to tell [Saylor] that he either had to pay or leave,” Karp said, “and how abusive and uncooperative Mr. Saylor was.”
He added, “This was a fairly extended incident, and the deputies are trained in how to escalate.”
He said it was not clear “whether he was handcuffed before everybody fell to the ground or after he was already on the ground. . . . That may matter.”