CYRUS v. TOWN OF MUKWONAGO (November 10, 2010)

Twenty-nine-year-old Nicholas Cyrus lived with his parents in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. Cyrus suffered from bipolar disorder and had occasional delusional episodes. He was known by the local police in his small community for his unusual behavior but was not considered dangerous. On the evening of July 8, 2006, Cyrus left his parents' home wearing only his bathrobe following a dispute with his mother . He remained missing until early the next morning when a town resident reported to the police that an unknown man wearing only a bathrobe was trespassing on his property. Lt. Czarnecki responded to the call. Czarnecki suspected that the "unknown man" was Cyrus. He knew Cyrus and knew that he had been reported missing the night before. There are slight factual disputes regarding what happened next but, generally, Czarnecki unsuccessfully tried to get Cyrus' attention and cooperation. After Cyrus refused a request to talk and moved toward the house, Czarnecki used his Taser on him. Cyrus fell to the ground. He tried to get up but wobbled and fell. Czarnecki used his Taser again and Cyrus rolled down the driveway. By this time, a second officer had arrived at the scene. The two officers tried to handcuff Cyrus but he was lying on his hands. When the officers could not pry his hands loose, Czarnecki used his Taser several more times. The officers finally got him handcuffed but, when they rolled him over, they discovered he was not breathing. Cyrus died later that day. His parents brought a § 1983 Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against the officers and the municipality. The plaintiffs offered two experts -- one to testify regarding reasonable force and one (the Medical Examiner, who reformed the autopsy) on the cause of death. The Medical Examiner testified at her deposition that many factors contributed to Cyrus' death, including the stress of the struggle, his fear, his mental condition, his physical position, the pain, and the shock. She testified that she could not state that any particular factor was more significant than another. Judge Randa (E.D. Wis.) excluded the testimony of both experts relating to the cause of death, principally because the Medical Examiner could not isolate a primary cause of Cyrus' death. The court then granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding that there were no material disputes of fact and that the Taser use was not excessive force as a matter of law. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Bauer and Sykes and District Judge Simon reversed and remanded. The Court recognized that most of the material facts were undisputed (principally because the victim was dead). However, it rejected the district court's conclusion for two reasons. First, the Court identified several material facts that were in dispute. Czarnecki testified that he used his Taser only five or six times but the Taser's internal register recorded 12 trigger pulls. The parties also disagreed about whether Cyrus walked or ran toward the house. Second, excessive force claims require an analysis of all the circumstances surrounding the use of force. Facts that may not technically be in dispute may be susceptible of different interpretations, making summary judgment appropriate. For example, there were potentially different inferences that a jury could draw from the fact that Cyrus rolled down the driveway. Was it an attempt to escape or merely an involuntary reaction to the shock? Other factors the jury could consider also tended to support the unreasonableness of the force: Cyrus had not committed a serious offense, he did not violently resist the officers, he was not armed, and he suffered from a mental illness. Since a jury could reasonably conclude that Czarnecki's multiple Taser uses constituted unreasonable force, summary judgment was inappropriate. The Court also rejected defendants' alternative position that plaintiffs could not prove causation without the excluded expert testimony. The Court conceded that proof of causation will be more difficult without the Medical Examiner's testimony. However, it found that the record was not totally devoid of evidence upon which a jury could conclude that the force caused Cyrus's death. Expert testimony is not necessary if the facts relied on are such that lay persons can understand them and draw appropriate conclusions from them. Here, Cyrus stopped breathing shortly after receiving the shocks, there is no evidence of a prior injury or condition, the toxicology report showed the absence of drugs, and there is no evidence of an intervening cause. On this record, the Court concluded that a jury could find causation.