The mother and wife of a man who died after being Tasered by Gallatin police officers have filed suit claiming negligence and unreasonable force resulted in the October 2009 death of Jeffrey Woodward.
Woodward’s mother, Sandra Rutter, and his widow, Andrea Woodward, are suing the city of Gallatin, its police department, the officers involved and Taser International Inc. for negligence and emotional distress.
Andrea Woodward is suing for $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, while Rutter seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
The wrongful death suit accuses police of reckless and negligent behavior in using unreasonable force and violating Woodward’s rights as well as a system that harbored abuse by Gallatin police officers. It was filed in Sumner County Circuit Court on Oct. 26 but was transferred to U.S. District Court on Tuesday.
City of Gallatin Attorney Joe Thompson referred questions to Nashville-based attorney Bill Bates, who will serve as counsel for the city via the Tennessee Municipal League. Bates could not be reached for comment.
Joe Bednarz Jr., representing Woodward and Rutter, said he hoped the suit would uncover details about the Oct. 27, 2009, incident that may have led to Jeffrey Woodward’s death.
“The problem is we just don’t have any information at all as to what happened other than the eyewitness testimony,” Bednarz said. “The police department hasn’t released anything yet.”
Bednarz said he had requested copies of the police reports but never received anything.
“The only way to get any answers appeared to be file the lawsuit,” he said.
According to court documents, Woodward called police to report his mother had been kidnapped.
Responding police officers found him walking down the street with a knife in his hand, stopped him and told him to drop the knife, which he did. Police handcuffed Woodward and placed him in the back of a patrol car before driving him to his mother’s house, where she was found safe.
According to the suit, when police charged Woodward with filing a false police report and took him out of the car, he became “agitated,” leading police to release a police canine on him and using a Taser device on him while he was on the ground with the dog on top of him.
Rutter and Andrea Woodward’s complaint states that witnesses at the scene reported Jeffrey Woodward cried, “Help me! Help me!” as his mother pleaded with officers not to kill her son.
The suit further alleges that the “ … Gallatin Police Department, were reckless, negligent, and deliberately indifferent in their training, hiring and supervision of their police officers … ” either failed to adequately train its officers in using a Taser device and/or officers failed to follow that training.
Part of the suit goes on to claim a pattern of tolerated police beatings and unlawful uses of force in which officers were not seriously punished or the incidents were covered up, therefore leaving officers with the impression that “civilian persons could be beaten or abused under circumstances not requiring the use of excessive force and that such beatings would, in fact, be permitted by the city and county.”
The suit further alleges that the GPD failed to properly investigate police beatings, shootings and uses of excessive force, claiming “systemic flaws” in the department’s review process.
Those claims include flaws in how reports justifying police actions were prepared; how investigating officers failed to give credit to civilian testimony and relied heavily on reports by officers at the scene; how officers failed to include facts that might have contradicted officers’ statements; how police supervisors have issued public statements exonerating police officers for excessive force, improper beatings or the use of a Taser before the police department had completed its own investigation into the incidents; and how supervisors didn’t review brutality cases for accuracy.
Three days after the incident, The Gallatin Newspaper quoted Gallatin police Sgt. Bill Storment as saying, “We believe our officers acted in an appropriate manner and tased the subject in the back area. However, we’re not sure the Taser completed a circuit because witnesses said they heard a loud pop and the subject got right up and took off running. We can’t determine if the subject was on drugs as that will be part of the investigation.”