Ariz. first responders named in wrongful death lawsuit

The lawsuit names Pima County, Rural/Metro Fire Department and an individual deputy and paramedic as defendants

By Caitlin Schmidt
The Arizona Daily Star

Tucson — The family of a man who died last year after he overheated following a car crash in the desert has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming authorities used excessive and unjustified force and failed to render proper medical aid.

Robert Cutler, a representative of the estate of David Cutler, filed the lawsuit in Pima County Superior Court in May, naming Pima County, Rural/Metro Fire Department and an individual deputy and paramedic as defendants.

Photo/Rural Metro Fire – Pima County Facebook

On the morning of June 5, 2017, David Cutler, a 23-year-old student at Western Carolina University was visiting his younger brother in Tucson. He was driving his car through the desert in or near Tucson, when the Jeep crashed, causing oil to leak and the vehicle to catch fire, according to the lawsuit.

Cutler escaped the vehicle and ran from the crash.

At about 9:30 a.m., Pima County sheriff's deputies and paramedics from Rural/Metro were sent to the location of the burning Jeep, finding the vehicle completely engulfed in flames and Cutler nowhere near the scene, the lawsuit says.

At about 11:30 a.m., a witness who heard Cutler's screams for help called 911. When Deputy Keith Barnes responded to the call, he saw Cutler naked on top of a hill and screaming for help, according to the lawsuit. At that time, the temperature was approaching 108 degrees and Cutler had been in the desert for more than two hours without shelter or water, the lawsuit says.

Barnes knew or suspected that Cutler had escaped from the Jeep fire, but at no time offered him water, the lawsuit says. Instead, Barnes approached Cutler with his baton out and later pulled out his pepper spray, according to the lawsuit. Barnes demanded that Cutler allow himself to be handcuffed, and the man complied, offering no resistance, the lawsuit says.

Barnes noticed that Cutler was covered in blood and described the young man as "beet red, red as a firebox," according to the lawsuit. Instead of calling paramedics , Barnes ordered him to walk back down the hill, then grabbed his arm and "slammed him to the burning hot ground," the lawsuit says.

"As soon as David's naked body hit the ground, he started to shake and yell in pain from the extreme heat of the ground and from the rocks and cactus needles on the ground," the lawsuit says. Cutler began to roll around in pain and Barnes kicked him in the face, then hogtied him, restraining him by his wrists and ankles behind his back, according to the lawsuit.

Barnes called for backup and told other deputies and paramedics that Cutler was combative and delusional, and asked paramedics to sedate him, despite the fact that he was already restrained, the lawsuit says.

Without checking Cutler's vital signs or assessing his condition, Grant Reed, a Rural/Metro paramedic who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, injected Cutler with Ketamine to sedate him rather than treating his heat-related distress, according to the lawsuit.

At about 12:20 p.m., while Cutler was still outside in the desert, his breath slowed and he went still. His handcuffs were removed and he was strapped to a backboard and walked down the hill, after which paramedics began CPR, the lawsuit says. Paramedics gave Cutler a variety of other drugs in an effort to resuscitate him before taking him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after 1 p.m.

The cause of death was listed as hyperthermia and Cutler's body temperature at the time of his death was 102.9 degrees, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit claims that the defendants violated Cutler's civil rights under the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth amendments and that Barnes used excessive and unjustified force when he encountered Cutler, who was clearly in distress.

The lawsuit also says that Reed breached his duty of care by not providing Cutler with water and injecting him with a sedative without considering his medical condition.

No dollar amount is specified in the lawsuit.

The Pima County Attorney's Office, which has previously said it can't comment on pending litigation, filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death claim against Pima County, saying that the county can't be liable for Cutler's death because Barnes was engaged in "statutorily-imposed law-enforcement duties" when he encountered Cutler.

Rural/Metro Battalion Chief John Walka said department policy prohibits discussing pending litigation. Attorneys for Robert Cutler didn't respond to the Star's request for comment.


(c)2018 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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