Claims that high-ranking Missouri Highway Patrol officials violated the civil rights of an Iowa man who drowned in handcuffs in the Lake of the Ozarks can go to trial, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey also ruled that a jury can consider allegations that Trooper Anthony Piercy violated Brandon Ellingson’s civil rights. She also allowed claims that Piercy, who arrested the college student on May 31, 2014, for allegedly boating while intoxicated, acted negligently in Ellingson’s death, as well as an allegation that Piercy was part of a conspiracy.
Based on the allegations in the lawsuit, “a jury could find Piercy made a series of decisions during Brandon’s seizure that, taken together, fell far outside the scope of reasonable officer conduct,” Laughrey wrote in her ruling this week. “Brandon, meanwhile, suffered a fatal injury as a result of Piercy’s erratic driving while he was restrained.”
Laughrey rejected claims against three commanders alleging negligent hiring, training and supervision of the two lead investigators in Ellingson’s drowning. Claims of conspiracy to commit abuse of process also were dismissed.
Trial is scheduled for October in federal court in Jefferson City.
Capt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, declined Thursday to say anything about Laughrey’s ruling. “The patrol does not comment on pending litigation,” Hotz said.
Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, also declined to comment. The office is representing the Highway Patrol, department commanders and Piercy.
Ellingson’s parents, Sherry and Craig Ellingson, and their attorney declined to comment.
The Ellingsons filed the civil lawsuit in December 2014 against the Missouri Highway Patrol, patrol leaders and Piercy. Their suit came three months after a jury in a Morgan County coroner’s inquest found that Ellingson’s death was an accident. In that inquest, Piercy at times cried as he told jurors he wasn’t properly trained for what he encountered the day Ellingson died.
After arresting Ellingson, 20, Piercy cuffed the college student’s hands behind his back and then put a Type III life vest, with arm holes, on him.
Witnesses say Piercy stuffed an already buckled vest over Ellingson’s shoulders and was unable to get it down over his entire torso. Piercy was taking Ellingson to a zone office for a breath test when the young man was ejected from the boat.
The life vest soon came off Ellingson. Piercy eventually jumped in the water and tried to save Ellingson, but he couldn’t.
A 2011 merger of the Missouri Water Patrol and the Highway Patrol set the stage for the drowning. After the merger, road troopers across the state were used to help out on the water and Water Patrol officers at times were assigned to the road.
The Star previously detailed how Piercy — an 18-year veteran road trooper who was helping out on the water — received only two days of field training before he worked on the lake alone.
Since Ellingson’s death, road troopers no longer patrol the lake alone.
In the civil suit, Piercy’s lawyers from the attorney general’s office argued that he should be shielded by immunity regarding the allegation that he had violated Ellingson’s civil rights. Laughrey denied that.
The court, she wrote, found it “beyond debate” that when the state takes custody of a person, it assumes some responsibility for safety and well-being.
The judge pointed out that, according to the lawsuit’s allegations, Piercy handcuffed Ellingson with the student’s hands behind his back, limiting his ability to protect himself on a boat ride, secured Ellingson in a flotation device that wouldn’t keep him afloat, put him against a “flipped-up” seat and then “drove across the lake at a speed that could dislodge a person.”
“These are not reasonable choices,” Laughrey wrote.
“Rather, Piercy’s alleged actions created, and then ignored, an obvious danger to the person held within his custody. Regardless of whether plaintiffs can ultimately succeed on their claim, they have sufficiently alleged a due process violation.”
In December, special prosecutor William Camm Seay charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter. That criminal case is scheduled for later this year.
According to counts still active in the civil lawsuit, 11 members of the patrol — including Piercy and several patrol commanders — are alleged to have been involved in a civil conspiracy to cover up the cause of Ellingson’s death.
In Laughrey’s ruling, she rejected Piercy’s request to dismiss him from the conspiracy claim.
“Even if Piercy did not know the full extent of the alleged conspiracy, plaintiffs’ allegation carries enough specificity to indicate, at this state in the litigation, his participation in it,” the judge wrote.