On August 2, 2017, Dane Smothers, Jr., a newly hired District of Columbia firefighter, was struck by a ladder truck while he was attending his first fire. He sustained serious injuries in the accident and filed federal claims against Jon Dyson and Patrick Carey, the operators of the truck, in their official capacities as D.C. firefighters. Smothers’ complaint alleged that “the drivers of the ladder truck intentionally drove into him to avoid a collision” with another truck.
A federal court dismissed Smothers’ constitutional claims. Smothers’ essential claim was that Carey, who was operating the ladder truck, deprived Smothers of his Fifth Amendment rights to “not be subjected to excessive or deadly force and not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law.”
The Court began by noting that for purposes of Carey’s motion to dismiss, it would “assume the truth of the allegation that the firefighters made a deliberate decision, and that they did not strike Smothers accidentally. But given the circumstances surrounding the accident, including the fact that the trucks were en route to assist in an active fire, and the drivers were seeking to avert a collision with another firetruck, the applicable case law compels a finding that notwithstanding its dire consequences, this was not an action that shocks the contemporary conscience.
“The United States Supreme Court has explained in some detail why decisions made by officers on the street in the heat of the moment are not likely to supply the basis for a constitutional claim. In one case, a police officer was engaged in a high-speed pursuit of a motorcycle carrying two men, and at the abrupt end of the chase, he skidded into one of the riders, causing his death. The Supreme Court gave significant weight to the fact that the officers involved in the chase had ‘practically instantaneous’ responses to lawless behavior, and that there was ‘no reason to believe they were tainted by an improper or malicious motive.’
“The same reasoning can be applied here. Carey and Dyson were operating a vehicle under exigent circumstances when time was of the essence – responding to a fire – and as Smothers recounts the incident, they were forced to make a split-second decision between two dangerous alternatives. While Smothers’ injuries cannot be minimized, his complaint is devoid of any allegations suggesting that Carey acted with malicious intent to harm him or any other improper motivation. Carey, like the officer in the Supreme Court case, was acting in response to a public safety emergency and did not have the luxury of taking the time to consider alternative options to avoid any injuries. His alleged conduct does not shock the conscience, and for that reason, the complaint fails to state a substantive due process claim against him.”
The Court remanded the case to the District of Columbia court system for consideration of Smothers’ non-constitutional claims.
Smothers v. District of Columbia, 2020 WL 5411294 (D.D.C. 2020).
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