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Labonte v. Town of Epsom

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

December 3, 2015

Lorraine J. LaBonte, Individually and as the Administratrix of the Estate of Allen Field, Plaintiff
Town of Epsom, New Hampshire; Dana Flanders; and Wayne Preve, Defendants Opinion No. 2015 DNH 221


Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

On July 7, 2013, Allen Field died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident after he lost control of his car, which then struck a tree at a high rate of speed. At the time, Field was attempting to evade Officer Dana Flanders, an Epsom, New Hampshire, police officer. The administratrix of Field’s estate brings this suit against Officer Flanders, the Town of Epsom, and its Chief of Police, Wayne Preve. In her second amended complaint, plaintiff advances two constitutional claims, over which this court has federal question jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. She also advances five common law claims, over which she asks the court to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Pending before the court is defendants’ motion to dismiss the two federal claims advanced against them, asserting that neither states a viable cause of action. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Defendants also move the court to remand plaintiff’s remaining common law claims to state court. For the reasons discussed, defendants’ motion is granted.

Standard of Review

When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must “accept as true all well-pleaded facts set out in the complaint and indulge all reasonable inferences in favor of the pleader.” SEC v. Tambone, 597 F.3d 436, 441 (1st Cir. 2010). Although the complaint need only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), it must allege each of the essential elements of a viable cause of action and “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation and internal punctuation omitted).

In other words, “a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitlement to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Instead, the facts alleged in the complaint must, if credited as true, be sufficient to “nudge[] [plaintiff’s] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Id. at 570. If, however, the “factual allegations in the complaint are too meager, vague, or conclusory to remove the possibility of relief from the realm of mere conjecture, the complaint is open to dismissal.” Tambone, 597 F.3d at 442.


Accepting the second amended complaint’s factual allegations as true - as the court must at this juncture - the relevant background is a follows. In the early morning of July 7, 2013, Officer Flanders was on patrol in the Town of Epsom. He was driving a marked Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser. At approximately 12:55 AM, he observed “more than usual” light behind the Epsom Central School and went to investigate. Second Amended Complaint (document no. 12) at para. 13. As he proceeded down the driveway to the school, Officer Flanders saw a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed in an easterly direction on Water Street. He did not recognize the driver, nor could he identify the make or model of the vehicle. The only distinguishing feature he was able to discern was the vehicle’s “blue headlights.” See Id. at paras. 15, 41. That vehicle was being driven by the decedent, Allen Field.

Officer Flanders activated his emergency lights and began pursuing the vehicle. Field refused to stop.[1] Officer Flanders followed the vehicle onto Black Hall Road, which had a posted speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour (35 mph). At one point during his pursuit of Field, Officer Flanders passed a slower-moving vehicle, at which time he was traveling at least sixty miles per hour (60 mph). Id. at para. 34. Field then turned onto New Rye Road, at which point Flanders says he “stopped trying catch up to the vehicle.” Id. at para. 43 (citing Flanders’ deposition testimony). Nevertheless, the complaint alleges that Officer Flanders continued his high-speed pursuit of the vehicle until he reached the area near 241 New Rye Road. Id. at para. 44. There, Officer Flanders discovered that Field had lost control of his vehicle and collided with a tree. Field was bleeding and unresponsive. Officer Flanders checked Field for a pulse, but was unable to detect any. He then contacted the dispatch officer, reported the accident, and asked that emergency responders be sent to the scene. Shortly thereafter, Field was pronounced dead.


As noted above, the second amended complaint advances two federal constitutional claims. In the first, plaintiff alleges that Officer Flanders violated Field’s constitutionally protected right to substantive due process by engaging in conscience-shocking behavior that proximately caused Field’s death. Next, plaintiff asserts that the Town of Epsom had a “practice or custom of failing to adequately ensure proper training” of its police officers - a failure that amounted to deliberate indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of Epsom residents, including Field.

I. Officer Flanders - Substantive Due Process.

The complaint alleges that Officer Flanders violated town policy by initiating (and maintaining) an “unwarranted” pursuit of Field, and violated various state laws during the course of that pursuit. Id. at paras. 86, 124. It goes on to assert that Officer Flanders’ “decision to conduct a dangerous, reckless, high-speed pursuit absent justification was made with callous indifference to Field’s constitutional rights.” Id. at para. 128. And, finally, it alleges that “it was foreseeable that Flanders’ unauthorized, high-speed pursuit would likely result in the deprivation of Field’s constitutional right to life, and thus constituted conscious [sic] shocking behavior.” Id. at para. 129.

As troubling as those allegations may be, they fail to state a viable claim that Officer Flanders deprived Field of his constitutionally protected right to substantive due process. As the Supreme Court has made clear - at least in the unusual circumstances presented by police pursuits - allegations of “deliberate indifference to [the suspect’s] survival, ” or “conscious disregard for [the suspect’s] safety, ” or even “reckless disregard for life” are, without more, insufficient to state a ...

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