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Wrongful death suit against city may go on

September 21, 2018

A wrongful death lawsuit against the city from the estate of a man who died in police custody while chained to the floor in 2015 can move forward, a federal magistrate ruled this week.

Lance E. Royal, 33, was arrested after a traffic stop in June 2015 as part of a narcotics investigation. Police noticed he was chewing cocaine as he was taken from the car and ordered him to spit it out, according to court documents.

Royal overdosed, had a seizure and died after being chained to the floor near an interrogation desk at the Fort Wayne Police Department, the documents say.

Shonda Royal represents her husband’s estate and argues in a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne that five police officers and the city caused his death by denying him medical care after he was arrested.

In a 56-page opinion filed Monday, Magistrate Paul R. Cherry sided with the city on that claim and ruled the officers are immune under the Indiana Tort Claims Act from allegations of wrongful death due to failure to reasonably respond to his medical needs. But he ruled the city can be liable under a legal doctrine called respondeat superior, which says that a party is responsible for the acts of its agents.

“An employer can be held vicariously liable for the state law torts of its employees committed in the course and scope of their employment,” Cherry wrote. “Because the Indiana Wrongful Death Act claims survive summary judgment on the merits and because there is no dispute that the officers were acting in the scope of their employment, plaintiff can pursue this claim against the city of Fort Wayne.”

Officers Cameron Norris, Jonathan Bowers, Kurt Franceus, Juan Gutierrez and Shane Heath are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which seeks punitive and other damages.

Lance Royal was driving a car police stopped in the 8200 block of Bridgeway Drive on June 25, 2015, to arrest Porshea N. Gentry, who was suspected of selling crack cocaine, police said at the time. Investigators believed both ate some of the drugs as officers approached, and Gentry was taken to a hospital.

Lance Royal refused medical care and told paramedics he felt fine when questioned, court documents say. He later had a seizure inside the interrogation room, and police called an ambulance but he died before he reached the hospital.

Gentry pleaded guilty in late 2017 to felony charges including dealing in cocaine and was sentenced to six years in prison, court records show.  

Cherry’s ruling is the second in a week to decide the fate of a lawsuit against the city based on respondeat superior.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Sept. 13 found that the city may be held liable for damages in a lawsuit filed by a woman raped by an on-duty police officer in 2013. Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the opinion that “police officers’ duties come with broad authority and intimidating powers that may affect vicarious liability.”

“More specifically, because police officers’ employer-conferred power is so great, the range of acts for which a city may be vicariously liable stretches far,” Rush wrote.

mleblanc@jg.net

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