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Huffman v. Newman

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

May 18, 2016

FRED P. NEWMAN, ETC., ET AL., Defendants.

          Dennis E. Jones, Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff.

          Henry S. Keuling-Stout, Keuling-Stout, P.C., Big Stone Gap, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones, United States District Judge.

         Following a fatal police shooting, the representative of the deceased’s estate has sued the shooting officer and the sheriff, his employer, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming unconstitutional use of excessive force. She has also asserted a pendent state law wrongful death claim. The defendants have moved for summary judgment, invoking qualified immunity. For the reasons explained below, I will enter summary judgment on behalf of the defendants.


         The following undisputed facts are taken from the affidavits, party admissions, and other evidence submitted to the court as part of the summary judgment record.

         On June 27, 2014, shortly before noon, plaintiff Jamie Huffman called 911 regarding her husband, William Michael Huffman, known as Michael. She told the operator that Michael had been drinking and had gone into the bathroom. She stated that she thought he had a gun and that a pistol was missing from the gun cabinet. Mrs. Huffman had heard a noise and was afraid to enter the bathroom. While speaking with the 911 operator over a landline, Mrs. Huffman used her mobile phone to call Sheila Cooke, who lived next door to the Huffmans.[1]

         In response, Cooke came to the Huffman’s house and went into the bathroom, and Mrs. Huffman followed. Michael sat on the toilet talking to Cooke, who was sitting across from him on the bathtub. Mrs. Huffman observed a shell casing on the floor of the bathroom, which she showed to Cooke. Michael stated that he had shot at a stray cat from the bathroom window. Mrs. Huffman described Michael as calm; he did not make any threatening statements or gestures.

         Mrs. Huffman told the 911 operator that she still wanted an officer to respond to the residence because Michael had been making suicidal statements. Mrs. Huffman walked to the kitchen and remained on the phone with the 911 operator. She told the operator that her husband was experiencing withdrawal from pain medication. Cooke and Michael exited the bathroom and entered the living room, where Michael sat in a recliner chair. His pistol was next to him, resting between his right leg and the arm of the chair. Mrs. Huffman told the 911 operator where the gun was located.

         Defendant Thomas Gregory Caldwell, a Deputy Sheriff of Washington County, Virginia, responding to the 911 call, then arrived at the Huffman home along with Virginia State Police Master Trooper Rick Fore. Deputy Caldwell asked Michael, still sitting in the recliner, if he had a firearm, to which Michael replied, “Huh.” (Huffman Aff. ¶ 9, ECF No. 28-1.) Deputy Caldwell repeated the question, and Michael answered, “No.” (Id.) Deputy Caldwell then asked Michael about the gun next to him and requested that Michael lay it down, but Michael responded, “No.” (Id.) Deputy Caldwell ordered Michael to give him the gun at least two times, but Michael did not comply. Cooke told Michael that if he would give up his gun, she would get him a beer; he refused her request. Deputy Caldwell asked Michael, “[W]ould you like to tell me what’s going on?” (Id.) Michael replied that he had been trying to shoot a stray cat out of his bathroom window. A beer bottle and prescription pill bottles were on a table next to Michael.

         Deputy Caldwell motioned for Mrs. Huffman to step outside with him. Mrs. Huffman walked onto the porch and Deputy Caldwell stood in the front doorway. The recliner in which Michael was seated had its back to the front door, ten to twelve feet from the door. Mrs. Huffman told Deputy Caldwell that Michael had been depressed; had issues with prescription drugs and alcohol; and had gone into the bathroom and fired a gun, prompting her to call 911. Michael then rose from the recliner with the pistol in his right hand. Deputy Caldwell again ordered Michael to drop the gun. Michael did not do so, but instead began moving to his left. At that point, Deputy Caldwell fired one shot from his pistol, striking Michael.[2] Deputy Caldwell then secured Michael’s firearm, handed it to Trooper Fore, and began administering first aid. Michael was transported by ambulance and helicopter to Bristol Regional Medical Center, where he died as a result of the gunshot wound.

         The autopsy report revealed that the bullet fired by Deputy Caldwell entered Michael’s body at the left side of the abdomen and traveled to the right side of the abdomen. The bullet’s trajectory was “left to right, slightly downward and slightly front to back.” (Mem. P. & A. Opp’n Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 2, 1, ECF No. 28-4.) A photograph of Michael taken immediately after the shooting shows that the gunshot wound was located on his left side, between his armpit and hip. (Reply to Pl.’s Resp., Ex. A, ECF No. 33-4.)

         At no time prior to the shooting did Michael point his gun at anyone or make any verbal threats.[3]

         Mrs. Huffman asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, as well as a state law wrongful death claim pursuant to Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-50. She has named as defendants both Deputy Caldwell and Fred P. Newman, the Sheriff of Washington County.[4] The defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity and that the undisputed facts warrant judgment in their favor as a matter of law. Newman also contends that as a matter of law, he cannot be held liable for Michael’s death under a theory of supervisory liability ...

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