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Judge rejects widow’s lawsuit; woman sought damages over deadly chase

December 18, 2018

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought against Cameron County, its sheriff and a transportation officer that sought damages after an inmate escaped custody, killed a man and led police on a high-speed chase that ended when police shot and killed the escapee.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez signed an order of dismissal on Dec. 13, ruling that Maria Mercedes Cancino, who filed the litigation on behalf of herself and the estate of her husband, Mario Martinez, 56, along with Julian Puga, who was inside the house where the attack took place, are not entitled to federal relief.

Cancino and Puga alleged in the lawsuit that Cameron County, Sheriff Omar Lucio and transportation officer Antonio Tella were liable because they knew that escaped inmate Michael Diaz Garcia had violent and suicidal tendencies when they assigned just one, instead of two officers, to transport him on June 8, 2017, to a dentist appointment.

Garcia overpowered Tella, seriously injured the officer and stole his firearm before forcibly entering a residence on the 300 block of Fruitdale Road where Martinez was about to sit down for lunch with some friends. Garcia demanded a vehicle and the keys from Martinez, who attempted to calm him down, before shooting and killing the man.

Michael Gonzalez, the attorney representing Cancino and Puga, argued that the county, Lucio and Tella were liable because Garcia may have never escaped had the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department not violated its own transportation policy that requires two officers to accompany inmates seeking medical treatment outside the detention center.

This is called a "state-created danger theory," which has not been recognized by the 5th Circuit of Appeals, which handles federal cases out of Brownsville.

In his ruling, Rodriguez mentions that other federal appeals courts have found inidivduals can hold state actors accountable if they "affirmitively created the plaintiffs’ peril or acted to render them more vulnerable to danger."

The 5th Circuit of Appeals has consistently not recognized this theory, Rodriguez’s ruling notes.

According to Cameron County’s motion to dismiss, Cancino and Puga aren’t entitled to relief under this theory because they were not prisoners or involuntarily institutionalized or children in foster case. The county argued that it only has a duty to protect people in those classes from state-created dangers so it had no legal obligation to protect Cancino, Puga and Martinez from Garcia’s violence.

"As such, the Defendants owe no legal duty to protect Plaintiffs from violence from a third party, even if the third party is an escaped prisoner," the motion to dismiss states.

Rodriguez agreed.

Cancino and Puga said in court documents that the violent attack left them with severe emotional distress and mental anguish requiring extensive therapy and medical assistance that is expected to continue into the future indefinitely.

Gonzalez said on Monday afternoon that he will appeal the ruling on federal claims in the lawsuit and pursue state claims in Cameron County District Court.

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

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