(CN) - New Jersey state troopers must face claims they suffocated a drunken driver found stopped in the middle of the highway, a federal judge ruled.
After New Jersey State Trooper Jason Sowinski spotted a white sedan stopped in the middle of the northbound lane of I-95 at about 11 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2008, he awoke the driver, Robert John Tuite Jr., and had him move the car to the shoulder.
The trooper said Tuite, whose license was suspended, failed several sobriety tests.
Footage from a patrol car video camera shows the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Tuite struggling to break free of Sowinski and his back up, Troopers Joshua Coppola and Ian Rosenberg, for about 90 seconds until they push him forward over the road guardrail to expose his arms and handcuff him.
Coppola, upon seeing blood on his hands and Tuite's face, called for an ambulance.
Rosenberg then put Tuite face-down on the ground, put his knee between the man's shoulder blades, and pushed down on his shoulders with his hands as Coppola held Tuite's legs.
There is no footage of what happened next because Tuite's car is in the way.
Tuite's family said in court that the footage reveals the driver yelling, "You guys are killing me!"
Rosenberg and Coppola allegedly kept their hold on Tuite for several minutes, however, until he went still and silent.
Though the family says Tuite had stopped breathing, the troopers say Tuite was drifting in and out of consciousness as they propped him up against the guardrail, detected a pulse and saw his chest rising and falling.
The family says Coppola waited nearly 10 minutes to put an oxygen mask on Tuite.
When paramedics arrived, they saw that Tuite was not breathing and had a "bluish tinge to the area around his lips," according to a deposition. Tuite then went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.
He was pronounced dead on arrival at 12:31 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2008.
The autopsy gave the cause of death as "cardiorespiratory arrest following physical restraint and struggle" while under the influence of alcohol and a prescription muscle relaxer, with contributory causes "asthma," "stenosis of larynx," and "obesity."
Ruth Tuite's wrongful-death action names as defendants the troopers, New Jersey, and its state police, alleging the trio caused Tuite to die of positional asphyxiation and deliberately failed to tell paramedics how he had been held down.
U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty granted the state defendants summary judgment based on sovereign immunity Wednesday, but denied the troopers' motion for the same relief.
"A jury will have to decide whether Tuite stopped breathing while Rosenberg and Coppola held him down; whether the circumstances should have alerted the troopers to Tuite's distress; whether they should have realized that CPR was necessary; and whether they compromised Tuite's medical care by withholding pertinent information from the EMTs," McNulty wrote.
The judge also upheld the excessive-force claims against the troopers.
"I cannot conclude as a matter of law that holding him down in this manner was a reasonable use of force," McNulty wrote. "It may be that Tuite continued to resist to some degree, but it is also true that he was prone and handcuffed. It may be that the officers were justified in applying some force, but it may also be true that Tuite was in distress and that the officers should have realized that. An assessment of the danger posed by the defendant, based on, e.g., his physical size and the proximity of traffic, may require the exercise of a fact finder's judgment. The restraint went on for some time, Tuite was unarmed, and the officers had no other suspects to deal with."
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