Stewart W. Peppers’ parents filed the first lawsuit in federal court in July, three months after their son’s death. It claimed Peppers’ constitutional rights as a pretrial detainee were violated through use of excessive force that they say resulted in his death. The suit names Washington County, and eight people — including Sheriff Ed Graybeal and the jailers involved — in their individual capacity on constitutional issues as well as the alleged assault the family believes led to Peppers’ death.
In an order in late March, U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer dismissed the case involving claims of assault and ruled those issues were something to be filed in state court. Last week in Washington County Circuit Court, Peppers’ family filed a similar claim that alleges the six detention officers involved were “liable for common law assault and battery for the beating of (Peppers).”
Peppers, 22, died April 29, 2013, at Johnson City Medical Center after the incident inside a jail cell.
In the latest suit, parents Joe and Natasha Peppers did not ask for a specific amount but did ask for monetary compensation and punitive damages. In the federal action, the couple asked for more than $20 million to compensate their loss.
Washington County had not yet filed an answer to the Circuit Court lawsuit, but the document was served to officials this week.
“In the initial federal action, they included federal claims and state law claims; I moved to dismiss the official capacity claims. The (federal) court declined jurisdiction over the state law claims and dismissed official capacity. They’ve raised those in more detail in the state suit,” said Jeffrey Ward, attorney for Washington County in the case.
Other portions of the federal case are moving forward, and in a plaintiff discovery motion hearing Thursday in Greeneville, Magistrate Dennis Inman ruled Peppers’ family would have to rely on subpoenas to obtain information needed to support their case rather than have automatic access to documents and records from the jail.
Ultimately, a federal judge would have to determine if Peppers’ constitutional rights were violated by the jailers’ actions when they tried to subdue him.
Peppers’ family wanted Inman to grant the motion for discovery because they were “concerned that they will be unfairly prejudiced and irreparably harmed by a delay in the discovery process.”
But attorneys for the Detention Center said because there was still a pending motion for qualified immunity for the jail officers, “it would be inappropriate for wide-open discovery to take place while the defendant’s motion ... is still pending.”
If the qualified immunity motion, which means officers cannot be individually sued for actions that occurred while they were working in official capacity for the county, is granted, the federal lawsuit would be dismissed.
An autopsy — performed, in part at East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine’s forensic center and in part at the University of Miami -— ruled Peppers died from excited delirium brought on by the abuse of steroids and marijuana.
According to documents filed in the federal lawsuit, Peppers had been in jail several days when he became irate and began acting irrational. Officers went into his cell to subdue him, but he resisted and that led to him being electronically shocked, sprayed with a water-based chemical agent and placed into a restraint chair. Court documents said Peppers suddenly stopped resisting and stopped breathing during the incident, and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Excited delirium is not a recognized diagnosis by the American Medical Association, and Peppers’ family claims the determination of that as his cause of death was a way to cover up their son’s murder.
Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.