Why Do Police Have Qualified Immunity but Doctors Don’t?
Doctors, like police, must make split-second life or death decisions. No matter how good an emergency doctor or surgeon may be, there’s always a chance they’ll make a mistake in those vital moments. Those mistakes don’t always rise to the level of medical malpractice negligence as it’s defined by the law, even if the patient dies. That same argument is often made by advocates for law enforcement qualified immunity.
Police sometimes shoot people who should not have been shot, but that decision to shoot may not necessarily have been based on malice, prejudice or incompetence. Advocates of qualified immunity say removing that safeguard may cause police to hesitate in a situation where shooting is justified because they are afraid of suffering the consequences of civil lawsuits, but the same argument can also be made for health care workers.
Another key difference between doctors and police are assets and who is liable for paying damages. A rookie police officer may start their career at just $35,000 a year – a civil lawsuit could ruin them financially and potentially bankrupt the municipality they work for. The taxpayers of a community may ultimately pay for a judgement against the government. Doctors with high salaries and medical malpractice insurance tend to be better able to shoulder the costs of a lawsuit.
Just like doctors, there’s no doubt police can be negligent and fail to maintain the standard of care expected of them on the job. When a doctor clearly acts negligently, they can be held liable in a medical malpractice case. The same generally isn’t true for law enforcement.
What Is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that applies to government officials, not just law enforcement personnel. When police are on the job or acting in an official capacity, they are immune from personal injury, wrongful death or other civil lawsuits UNLESS the plaintiff can prove the official knowingly or incompetently violated the plaintiff’s statutory or constitutional rights.
According to the strict interpretation of qualified immunity, the doctrine should not protect officers in cases where they clearly knew their actions were a violation of the victim’s rights. These instances are rare, in large part because law enforcement gets to write the narrative after violence has been committed. They rarely admit in police reports that they violated a victim’s rights, unless the act was caught on video.
Even When the Facts Are Clear, Qualified Immunity Is Hard to Overcome, but Not Impossible
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently vacated the decision of a lower court to grant qualified immunity to five officers who shot Wayne Jones, a schizophrenic homeless man, 22 times.
Based on the wording and timing of the court’s decision, it seems clear the killing of George Floyd was a factor that influenced the reversal of the lower court’s original decision.
The Jones incident happened in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 2013. Jones, a 50-year-old black man, was stopped by police officer Paul Lehma while walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk. Lehman asked Jones for identification, which Jones didn’t have. Lehman then asked Jones if he had any weapons, to which Jones responded he had “something on him,” which turned out to be a small knife.
Lehman called for backup and asked Jones to get against the police car. Jones responded with confusion and started moving away from Lehman, at which point Lehman tased Jones. A second officer arrived and also shot Jones with a Taser.
Jones fled down the street and three more officers joined the first two for backup. The officers eventually caught up with Jones, put him in a chokehold, kicked him and got him on the ground. At some point during the altercation Jones stabbed one of the officers.
It is alleged that once Jones was on the ground, incapacitated and no longer posed a threat to the officers, they proceeded to shoot him 22 times.
None of the officers were charged with a crime. Jones’s family sued in 2014 but their wrongful death case was dismissed multiple times based on qualified immunity.
One of the main reason Jones’ case is getting a third look now, six years later, is due to the current climate regarding qualified immunity.
Families Can Suffer Greatly When There’s No Compensation in These Cases
The same justifications for compensation in all wrongful death cases, including medical malpractice cases, are equally valid in police shooting cases. The victim may have been the household’s primary income earner. Children and spouses will endure the pain and suffering caused by the untimely loss of a loved one. Families must bear the medical and funeral costs that were a direct result of the police shooting.
If the person had died from a medical mistake, families would at least have a chance to recover compensation for these damages. When the death is at the hands of law enforcement, a family’s chance of getting compensation for these costs are nearly nonexistent.
National outrage over the deaths of Jones, Floyd and dozens of other victims of police brutality could finally push legislators to make qualified immunity a thing of the past. These tragic events have led to a unique moment of national realization that the arguments that justify qualified immunity could apply to doctors and other professionals as well, essentially creating a double standard in the nation’s legal system.
If you have been injured due to police brutality, a medical mistake or you’ve recently lost a loved one to the negligent actions of either law enforcement or a doctor, contact the Dressie Law Firm at 770-756-6333 for a free case evaluation.