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Officers to face jury in Peppers case

While charges against Sheriff Ed Graybeal in his individual capacity were dismissed, the six Washington County Detention Center officers are heading for a jury trial in the lawsuit related to the death of Stewart W. Peppers, who died during April 2013 while an inmate in the WCEDC.
“The judge analyzed what we presented and what was presented by the plaintiffs, and decided there were enough issues of fact that he could not make that determination by law,” attorney Jeff Ward said, referring to claims that officers violated the 14th amendment rights of Peppers while he was in the detention center as a pretrial detainee.
“The jury has to decide the facts, and the judge will make a ruling based on the law.”
This is the second lawsuit filed by Joe and Natasha Peppers who are suing the six corrections officers, each individually, for alleged common law assault and battery and the alleged wrongful death of their son.
Graybeal and Washington County also are listed as defendants being sued pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.
The lawsuit was filed in April 2014, one month after U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer granted a motion to dismiss claims against individual defendants in their official capacities as part of the original lawsuit that seeks $20 million and claims Peppers’ death was the result of injuries sustained in the alleged 20-minute beating by corrections officers at the jail.
Peppers was incarcerated on charges including aggravated assault, unlawful possession of a weapon and the manufacture of a controlled substance. An autopsy report released in January 2014 indicates he died from “excited delirium associated with the misuse of Nandrolone Decanoate, exogenous testosterone and acute cannabinoid.”
Greer dismissed the official capacity claims based on the defendants’ argument that the claims were redundant because the plaintiffs were also suing Washington County. According to the judge’s order, “It is clearly established that official capacity suits are, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the governmental entity.”
The defendants’ motion for summary judgement based on qualified immunity in their individual capacity, however, was denied.
In his opinion, Greer states the factors used to determine whether the officers’ conduct violated a constitutional right are difficult to apply in this situation because the facts presented by each party are so different.
Ward argues the defendants used the amount of force that was reasonably necessary to try and control an extremely strong and manic individual who posed a severe threat to the officers, to himself and to the security of the WCEDC.
The plaintiffs claim Peppers was not actively resisting the officers when or after they entered his cell, and that after he became unresponsive, officers placed him in a restraint chair and continued to beat him.
“Quite frankly, these issues of fact must be decided by a jury,” Greer writes.
Because Graybeal had no personal inolvement in the incident and the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that he possessed information revealing a “strong likelihood” of unconstitutional conduct by his subordinates and did nothing to prevent the conduct, Greer dismissed claims against the sheriff in his individual capacity.
Claims against Washington County are still pending, but plaintiffs must prove that the policy and practice of the county were the moving force behind the alleged violations.
Greer indicated the court will enter a scheduling order shortly, which will include a trial date.
According to Ward, the next step is the discovery process in preparation for the trial, which is approximately a year away. The jury will be selected as part of the trial itself, he said.