Admitted to Nashville General Hospital after his arrest last May, Micheal Minick was many things. He was dehydrated. He was disoriented. He suffered from loss of muscle mass. He was also combative, a possible byproduct of being under the influence of drugs, police said.
But regardless of his mental state, his family says, he never should have ended up dead, beaten into a coma by four Davidson County Sheriff’s Office deputies in his hospital room after he allegedly became violent in May 2011.
A Metro Nashville Police Department investigation, the district attorney’s office and a Davidson County grand jury all found no wrongdoing in the four deputies’ actions, though.
Last month, Minick’s wife and mother, the coexecutors of his estate, filed a federal lawsuit against all the parties involved in Minick’s arrest and subsequent death.
Part of the suit takes aim specifically at hospital and law enforcement policies when it comes to dealing with combative patients.
The lawsuit claims current procedures at Nashville General and the sheriff’s office ultimately violated Minick’s constitutional rights and led to his untimely death.
Police received a call on May 30 about a shirtless man running through the woods, according to MNPD documents. Minick, 39, who was exhibiting unusual behavior, was stunned with a Taser by an MNPD officer and taken into custody. He had an outstanding warrant for a driver’s license violation and was going to be charged with resisting arrest.
He was admitted to Nashville General for loss of muscle mass and dehydration.
According to an MNPD investigation, Minick became confrontational with Christopher Foster, the deputy assigned to guard him in his hospital room. At one point, Minick tore out his IV, and a nurse came in to clean his bed. After the nurse left, the situation escalated.
Foster called for backup. Minick allegedly broke out of Velcro leg restraints and became aggressive toward the four officers. In the process of the struggle, officers pepper-sprayed Minick and beat him with clenched fists and batons.
Hospital staff rushed to the scene, but by the time they entered the room, Minick was breathless and blue. Nurses revived his vitals, but he remained in a coma. Minick, a father of three, died less than two months later in hospice care. The Davidson County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide via an asphyxial event.
The MNPD investigation stated that Minick could have been on “bath salts” — a mind-altering, psychosis-inducing synthetic drug, sometimes packaged to look like scented crystals for the tub. Minick’s wife, Heather, told police investigators that Minick was bipolar and manic, but had been clean of drugs for seven months.
The case raises many questions about the treatment of pre-trial inmates in hospitals, the lawsuit said.
Davidson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Karla West said all deputies receive 40 hours of training in “use of force.” Department policy allows deputies to implement an “immediate use of force” if inmate “behavior constitutes an immediate, serious threat to the inmate, staff, others, or property or to institutional security and good order.”
Minick’s family’s attorney, Danny Hryhorchuk told The City Paper he had doubts about the “serious threat” Minick, who weighed 134 pounds, posed to the four deputies.
West said the sheriff’s “use of force” policy applies the same to hospital staff as it does deputies who work in jails.
However, if Minick had simply been a patient, not a pretrial detainee, the outcome probably would have been different.
The Merck Manual, a well-respected medical reference, recommends that hospital staff use four or five individuals to control unruly and violent patients. If patients can’t be controlled, the book recommends that hospital staff sandwich a patient in between two mattresses and apply a “chemical restraint,” in other words, a sedative. The manual doesn’t recommend violence toward patients.
Both the police report and lawsuit mention that Minick was hooked up to an IV, but there was no information on whether the IV was providing antipsychotics or other tranquilization. Minick allegedly became combative after he ripped out the IV, and the IV wasn’t replaced, according to the lawsuit.
Nashville General Hospital’s policy regarding inmates makes it clear that prisoners have the same rights as other patients. However, it doesn’t specify a procedure for which a set of personnel — medical or law enforcement — should respond to violent patient emergencies.
The policy does allow for medical professionals to call officers for help in subduing a patient. But the “Prisoner/Inmate Security & Treatment” policy provides no guidance for appropriate action by a deputy who is alone in a room with an unruly patient.
The Tennessee Department of Health doesn’t have a rule or policy regarding the treatment of combative patients as part of its accreditation process, either.
The attorney for Minick’s survivors argues in the lawsuit that better policy could have prevented the fatal outcome.
“The acts and omissions of the defendants constituted deliberate indifference to the humane treatment and serious and apparent medical needs of Micheal Minick,” Hryhorchuk wrote in the suit.
Christopher Slobogin, the director of Vanderbilt’s criminal law program, said use of force cases are fairly common. The topic has been in the spotlight recently in the highly publicized Trayvon Martin shooting case.
“I can see the police using a fair amount of force to subdue [someone] to protect themselves and protect himself,” Slobogin said. “The only question is whether they went too far. It’s the kind of issue that comes up all the time. It’s very fact-specific.”
The hospital, however, is also obligated to a duty of care.
“You need to protect the person from themself and from other people, that’s the duty of care. In a hospital, since the people there are medical experts, they arguably have a little bit more expertise and a little bit more wherewithal to prevent violence,” Slobogin said.
“If I had to play lawyer here, what I might argue is there are less intrusive ways of dealing with the guy’s violence.”
If the case ends up going to trial, it will be up to a jury to decide whether use of force went too far, and if the duty of care came up short.