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Court Allows Wrongful Death Claim Against Cop

MIAMI (CN) - A police officer and the city of West Miami must face a wrongful death claim filed by the family of a man who died after an alleged altercation with police, a federal judge ruled.

In a lawsuit filed in the Miami Federal Court in June 2014, Jorge Sagado and Barbara Alfaro claim that their son, George Salgado, died on April 13, 2012, a day after the naked and unarmed 21-year-old was punched, kicked and Tazed during an assault allegedly carried out by several police officers.

According to court documents, Salgado showed up at his next-door neighbor's house, naked and sweating "with bulging eyes," asking for marijuana or cocaine. He was greeted at the door by 70-year-old Israel Rodriguez, who was visiting the neighbor for lunch.

Rodriguez later told police that he encouraged Salgado to go indoors as he could not be outside naked. At that, Rodriquez said, Salgado knocked him to the ground, and proceeded to claw and try to bite the older man as they grappled.

Escaping back into the house, Rodriguez called the police.

Moments later, courts documents say, Officers Raul Baron and Myrna Lopez of the West Miami police department arrived at the scene and found Salgado in an efficiency apartment next door.

The officers claimed Salgado charged them; the dead man's family says the officers shot their Tasers at Salgado, striking him in his right side. After he fell, Baron continued to shock Salgado four more times in five-second bursts, the court document say.

Salgado's family says that after briefly being incapacitated, their son convulsed, struck his head, then began crawling across an outdoor courtyard.

At this point, they claim, four more police officers arrived at the scene. According to the family, one of the officers immediately fired a Taser at Salgado, and Baron punched and kicked him.

While the officers, en mass, attempted to restrain Salgado, they also continued to fire their Tasers at him, striking him another 11 times, the court documents say.

Finally, the officers handcuffed Salgado and drove him to a hospital.

The family claims that once there Salgado remained in handcuffs for nearly an hour at before being diagnosed with respiratory failure, acidosis - caused when too much acid forms in the blood, and a hemorrhage.

He died early the next morning.

Salgado's family sued the city of West Miami for wrongful death, and officers Baron and Lopez for their use of excessive force. Their initial complaint also named

Taser International, Miami-Dade County and two Miami-Dade police officers as defendants.

They later dropped their claims against the Taser manufacturer, and settled their claims against Miami-Dade County.

Last week U.S. District Judge James King granted Officer Lopez summary judgment, finding she was entitled to qualified immunity, and that her one Taser discharge was a reasonable use of force.

But Judge King denied the summary judgment for Officer Baron and the city of West Miami.

In doing so he noted that Taser training materials warn against using the device for longer than 15 seconds, especially near a suspect's heart or when the suspect is impaired.

"This weighs against Baron" King wrote. "Particularly given the probes' proximity to Salgado's heart, the excess of 15 seconds of discharge, and Salgado's evident 'physiologically or metabolically compromised' state, al1 of which were factors Baron knew to increase the risk of death."

Baron's description of Salgado's behavior is also inconsistent with one witness' testimony, the judge noted. Rodriguez, the man Salgado earlier attacked, claimed Salgado initially complied with orders and did not violently resist, the judge said.

"These disputed facts, when construed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, bring Baron's conduct -- at least his second through fourth Taser discharges -- well within the ambit of ... clearly established law, such that the unlawfulness of his conduct would be clear to any reasonable official," the judge wrote.

The decision comes as Miami area police face multiple accusations of excessive force when using Tasers, including the death of a fleeing graffiti artist last year. According to the Miami New Times, 11 men have died over the last eight years after being shocked by Tasers - five of those in the last year and a half.

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