Mother of man who died after Athens Police tasing files suit against City of Athens

ATHENS, Ala.- The mother of a man killed during a situation involving Athens Police at an area hospital last year has filed suit against two Athens Police officers and the City of Athens. The lawsuit alleges that the officers involved went against the city’s policy and training when they deployed a Taser on a patient with mental illness, which led to his death.

The lawsuit cites excessive force, denial of medical care, failure to intervene, and municipal liability.

The Incident

The incident happened in  February 2016. Athens Police said they received a call to help medical staff at Athens Limestone Hospital who were dealing with a patient who was “physically struggling with them during their attempts to conduct a mental health evaluation.”

That patient was Randy Nelson, 49. His mother, Dorothy Nelson, said today through an attorney that her son had been dealing with “a host of mental impairments including a schizophrenia and bipolar disorder” at the time this took place.

Chief Floyd Johnson explained the police department’s version of events in 2016. He said that when officers responded and talked to Nelson, “The patient remained very agitated and threw his hospital gown and glass vials at officers,” Johnson said. After officers were unable to calm the man, Johnson said they told the patient’s mother and staff that it would be necessary to use a Taser on him to stop further attempts to harm himself and others.

After one officer used the Taser on the patient and another restrained and handcuffed him, “It later became apparent the patient was having trouble breathing, and the staff moved the patient to a trauma room,” Johnson said.

The patient was transported to Huntsville Hospital, where he died on Feb. 8, he said.

The Lawsuit

Now, Nelson’s mother has filed suit against the officers involved, Gregg Lott and Dusty Meadows. The lawsuit states that Nelson’s constitutional and statutory rights were violated and the officers were not properly trained to deal with the situation.

Her attorney, Martin Weinberg, said in a statement to WHNT News 19 that Nelson had been fearful of medical personnel due to his mental condition and that Nelson was Tased without presenting himself as a danger to himself or others.

The complaint reads:

“Probable cause did not exist to arrest Randy for any crime, or for purposes of placing him in protective custody.  As such, the use of force against Randy let alone excessive and unlawful force that included the use of a Taser, was neither necessary nor lawful. A person who did not suffer from the same mental illness as Randy would not have been subjected to a use of force by law enforcement, let alone the use of a Taser to the point of causing fatal injuries, for refusing an instruction to take medication.”

“The City of Athens clearly ignored Taser’s warnings that the Taser, even when properly used, can cause death, and failed to adopt a proper policy and provide proper training to the individual defendant’s governing its use,” said Birmingham Attorney, Martin Weinberg, who represents the plaintiff with nationally renowned Civil Rights Attorney Devon M. Jacob of Jacob Litigation.

Weinberg and Jacob stated, “Randy Nelson’s mother brought him to the hospital in the hope that he would receive proper medical care. Instead, police officers who were improperly supervised and trained, killed him. This type of incident involving the mentally ill happens far too often. This lawsuit has been filed to bring justice and closure to the family of Randy Nelson but also as an effort to help correct the mistreatment of the mentally ill by law enforcement throughout this country.”

The month the incident took place, Athens Police released body camera video of officers inside the hospital.  After officers were unable to calm Nelson, Chief Johnson said they told the patient’s mother and staff that it would be necessary to use a Taser on him to stop further attempts to harm himself and others.

“There’s no other way of doing this,” comments one police officer in the video.

“Ok,” replies a voice believed to be the patient’s mother.

In this new lawsuit, filed today, attorneys allege the officers knew Nelson had a mental illness and ignored Athens’ Use of Force policy and training the night they deployed the Taser on Nelson. The complaint says the Taser can be dangerous because its electrical current can overload the brain, essentially shutting it off.

It adds that the officers received no “appropriate discipline and corrective training” following Nelson’s death, alleging that the City of Athens “created, encouraged, enforced, and maintained a culture where excessive force was permitted and expected.” It adds the allegation that Athens did not properly investigate the officers’ conduct.

The Estate of Randy Nelson is asking for an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys’ fees and litigation costs permissible under State and Federal Law. The plaintiff wants to go to trial.

According to the Athens Police Department’s Use of Force Policy, any use of force will be subject to a legal and/or administrative review. It details that unjustified uses of force are unreasonable amounts of force, or force used in a cruel manner. It adds that any use of force needs probable cause and depends on the subject’s level of resistance.

The Family’s Previous Statements

The Nelson family previously spoke out about the situation to WHNT News 19 shortly after the body camera video was released.

According to the Nelson family, Randy suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for 24 years. Following his death, they wanted to send a clear and strong message about mental illness.

“He was a psychotic person who nobody ever gave an ounce of medication to which could have calmed the situation down. People are in crisis and there is no help for them,” said their then- family attorney, John Taylor. Taylor had also said the Nelson family planned on doing outreach and activism to create guidelines for law enforcement, hospital staff and the community on ways to handle those difficult situations.