FF accused of using chokehold removed from lawsuit

Attorneys agreed the firefighter could not be sued as an individual for his actions within "the course of his employment"


Teresa Moss
The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

BEAUFORT, S.C. — A Burton Fire District firefighter accused of using a choke hold on Trey Pringle, who died after an altercation with police in February 2018, will be removed from a personal injury lawsuit brought by Pringle’s mother and brother.

A defense and plaintiff attorney both agreed during a virtual hearing Tuesday that any actions of fireman Brandon Thomsen happened within “the course of his employment.” That means he can’t be sued as an individual, his attorneys argued.

However, his employer, the Burton Fire District, can be and will remain on the lawsuit.

Pringle died Feb. 20, 2018, three days after the altercation with Beaufort County Sherrif’s Office deputies and Burton Fire District members at his mother’s Seabrook home.

The Pringle case

Pringle, 24, had a history of mental health issues and had injured himself during the Feb. 17, 2018, episode in which he smashed a TV, officials and law enforcement and court documents say. His family then called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office to the Detour Road home for help.

The complaint, filed in February of this year by Columbia attorney Shannon M. Chandler, claims Pringle “went from calm and relatively compliant to physically aggressive several times when the Deputies attempted to restrain (handcuff)“ him.

Sheriff’s Office police reports about the incident said Pringle struck a deputy in the face multiple times and kicked him as the deputy tried to handcuff him. A second deputy was also struck, the reports say.

When Pringle “went into his bedroom, the deputies decided to escalate their use of force to restrain [Pringle] by deploying a TASER device” when Pringle re-emerged from his room, the suit says.

14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone previously said Pringle was first tased when trying to retreat into a room and a second time after he swung a large piece of glass.

After Pringle was tased, Thomsen “employed some sort of a headlock” that brought Pringle to the floor, the suit says.

Thomsen remained at Pringle’s neck and head area as deputies tased him three more times and held him in a prone position.

The suit claims Thomsen, the deputies and another firefighter also continued to hold Pringle in that position after he was handcuffed and shackled at the feet.

When Pringle was rolled over into what police call a recovery position, he was not breathing, the suit says. CPR found an irregular heartbeat and mechanically induced breathing was started, the suit says.

He died three days later at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

Pringle’s manner of death was determined a homicide by the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office. “Homicide” is a medical term that identifies at least one other person was involved in the death; the term holds no legal bearing.

An autopsy determined Pringle died during “restraint in a prone position with chest compression.”

In 2019, Stone announced that no charges would be brought in the death.

“I do not believe that the officers or medical personal intended to harm Trey Pringle,” Stone said at the time. “They were trying to protect him and the others around him.”

Stone said that through discussions with the medical examiner, he learned that a “perfect storm” of circumstances led to Pringle’s death.

He said mania likely created an elevated heart rate, which led to the need for more oxygen. At the same time, a prior asthmatic condition also reduced Pringle’s air flow.

Pringle a 2012 graduate of Whale Branch High School, was remembered by classmates as a comedian and “smart guy who played football.”

Family told agents investigating the case that Pringle helped carry groceries to his grandmother’s house on the night of the incident.

The Pringle lawsuits

Kwajalean Pringle, Trey Pringle’s mother, filed a lawsuit Feb. 14 of this year, a day after a suit was filed by Angel Barnes, the legal custodian for Pringle’s child. Barnes’ filing is a wrongful death claim as the appointed representative of his estate.

The suits share similar wording throughout.

Attorney Chandler clarified to the court Tuesday that Kwajalean Pringle’s case is a personal injury or bystander claim for the emotional distress caused by witnessing the events.

“The plaintiffs have both suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, manifested by physical symptoms capable of objective diagnosis and established by expert testimony,” Kwajalean Pringle’s suit says.

A response filed by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office March 31 acknowledges that firefighter Thomsen was “at or about Trey Pringle’s head and neck area employing a headlock.”

The Sheriff’s Office response also admits that while Trey Pringle remained on the floor, Thomsen was by his head and neck.

It denies that Pringle was “subdued” while four men physically restrained him.

In April, attorneys for Thomsen and the Burton Fire District denied any wrongdoing.

“Defendants specifically deny any allegation that Brandon Thomsen ever placed a headlock or chokehold on Trey Pringle,” the reply says. “Defendants admit only that Brandon Thomsen defensively engaged with Trey Pringle after Pringle escaped several BCSO deputies attempting to restrain him, and Thomsen was near the front door of the house with nowhere else to go.”

However, the attorneys acknowledge that Alex Murray, a Burton Fire District employee, described Thomsen’s position to S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigators as “a sort of ‘Half-Nelson.’

They object that the phrasing used by Murray implies wrongful conduct.

The response also says that Thomsen described to SLED agents that he used his arm like a “chicken wing” to hold Pringle’s head. He told agents the weight put on Pringle’s shoulder blades was not enough to cut off his air.

While admitting the “chicken wing” statement, attorneys say the remarks were not “in the appropriate context.”

The claim filed by Pringle’s mother also said Thomsen made a statement that he “Put [Pringle] to sleep.”

The Sheriff’s Office admitted to that wording.

Thomsen’s attorneys said the statements were hearsay, made by deputies to SLED agents investigating the death.

The Pringle hearing

During Tuesday’s hearing, Michael Reid Burchstead, Thomsen’s attorney, argued to Judge Perry Buckner that under the law, the government agency involved would be sued rather than the individual.

Both the Burton Fire District and Thomsen were listed as defendants on the original complaint.

Chandler agreed Tuesday that it appeared Thomsen was acting in course of his employment.

Attorneys from both sides also agreed to remove some counts from the lawsuit so it would not be confused with a wrongful death suit, which only a representative of the estate can bring.

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©2020 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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