Supreme Court hears arguments in suit against police in Groton suicide
Hartford ― The Connecticut Supreme Court will decide the fate of a wrongful death suit filed against four state troopers by the family of Groton man who committed suicide. One of the defendants is Groton Town Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr.
The Supreme Court Justices on Tuesday heard arguments in a lawsuit related to the July 24, 2012 death of Timothy Devine, a 30-year-old firefighter who shot himself after an hours-long standoff with local and state police at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.
The suit, filed by the estate of Timothy Devine whose administrator is his father Michael Devine, alleges that members of a state police tactical team provoked Devine into shooting himself by repeatedly firing rubber projectiles - less-than-lethal munitions that police have said was an attempt to get Devine to drop his gun and turn himself in.
The troopers named in the suit are Fusaro, Steven Rief, Michael Avery and Kevin Cook. Fusaro became Groton chief after retiring from state police.
One of the key issues before the Supreme Court is the question of sovereign immunity and whether state troopers can be sued in their individual capacities.
Michael Skold, a deputy solicitor general representing the troopers on behalf of the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office, argued on Tuesday that the troopers had followed state police policy which dictates that use of less-than-lethal means of force may be considered in certain situations.
Skold argued a complaint of this sort must first go to the state’s Office of the Claims Commissioner, which would determine if the case has merit.
Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer entered a ruling on Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court in New Haven.
"First, the police used a type of force that is designed to be less-than-lethal, rather than using deadly force," Meyer wrote. "The degree of force is plainly relevant to its reasonableness. Second, the police used less-than-lethal force against a man whom they reasonably believed to be suicidal and to be armed with, and holding, a loaded gun while occupying public property."
Meyer, in his ruling, said it was debatable whether the troopers acted wisely when they decided to fire the batons at the time and in the manner they did.
In 2017, the Devine estate filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court claiming the troopers had acted with recklessness and gross negligence. Trial Judge Kimberly Knox dismissed the case in a ruling that indicated the court had no jurisdiction over the issue because of sovereign immunity opinion.
The Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal in 2020. The decision to dismiss the case, however, was reversed on a second appeal by an Appellate Court ruling that the trial court had erred and not given enough weight to the fact that the suit was specifically brought against the individual troopers rather than the state.
The crux of the argument now before the Supreme Court surrounds the 1975 case of Spring v. Constantino, which focused on immunity for a public defender in a malpractice suit. Skold called the argument before the Supreme Court a “judicial overreach.”
Trent LaLima, an attorney with the law firm Santos & LaLima who represents the estate of Timothy Devine, argued that the suit can go forward if the case involves reckless and intentional misconduct by the troopers.
LaLima alleges that during the standoff between police and Devine, one of the troopers was overheard saying “if he kills himself it’s not on us.” It was one of several allegations in the suit that alleges police exacerbated tensions at the scene of the standoff.
“That seems quite wanton or reckless to me,” LaLima said.
At the time of the standoff, LaLima said Devine was a person with a mental health crisis who at no point threatened to harm anyone but himself.
It was after more than three hours and attempts by two negotiators to convince Devine to surrender that Devine was hit with three barrages of batons. Devine, who had at one point placed the gun to his head and told state troopers “don’t make me do this,” shot himself, court records show.
Devine, who carried a suicide note in his pocket, was wanted by police for questioning after several teenage boys had given police statements alleging he had touched them in a sexually inappropriate manner. Devine, who was the owner of a Crossfit in Groton City, told police by phone that he would not come in for questioning and would instead kill himself.
Tuesday’s arguments lasted about an hour. A timeline for a written decision by the court is unknown.
“This case has obviously been fought for a long time,” LaLima said after court. “We’re just looking for an opportunity to prove our case to a jury.”
The family of Timothy Devine was not immediately available for comment.