The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati has upheld a lower-court decision denying a Blount County Sheriff’s Office employee’s request for qualified immunity protection from an excessive force lawsuit.
Maryville resident Judy Hodge sued the county and sheriff’s employee Henry Vaughn in 2016 on behalf of her deceased husband, Larry G. Hodge, who was injured when Vaughn pulled him out of a car and forced him to the ground after an accident he drove away from.
The decision pleased Judy Hodge’s attorney, Lance K. Baker, who said a panel of judges unanimously denied Vaughn’s appeal on an earlier ruling.
“Sometimes the wheels of justice are slow, but we are looking forward to getting this case back and setting it for trial,” Baker said. “We were very pleased with this decision and the family feels vindicated. It wasn’t even a split decision, it was 3-0.”
Baker said the county has 14 days to appeal the decision.
Attorney LaJuana G. Atkins, who represents the county, declined to comment.
The case stemmed from an accident on June 10, 2015, when Larry Hodge reportedly clipped another driver’s side-view mirror and drove off, seemingly unaware of the accident.
His daughter, Sabrina Huffstetler, said her father was diagnosed with advanced vascular dementia but was allowed by a doctor to drive short distances.
The driver initially pursued him while calling 911.
Vaughn, who was off duty from his role as a property and evidence technician, stopped his truck and reportedly approached Larry Hodge at gunpoint after his truck lurched forward twice.
Vaughn demanded Larry Hodge exit the truck. When Hodge refused and several times asked what he had done wrong, Vaughn reportedly yanked him roughly and forced him face-first onto the ground.
Huffstetler said her father’s injuries led to a swift decline in his health; he died a few months later.
“When they released him from jail, eight hours later, he was still dripping blood from a head wound,” Huffstetler said. “He had abrasions on his face and left arm, and his right arm had swollen up two to three times its normal size. It stayed that way for a few weeks. He had limited usage of that arm for the rest of his life. After the accident, he went into a major decline. He lost a lot of weight, and it was very heartbreaking to watch. He never functioned the same again after that.”
Hodge died in December 2015.
Sixth Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald’s opinion noted that Vaughn had holstered his weapon before asking Hodge to exit the truck for about two minutes before the incident occurred.
The traffic accident was a misdemeanor violation, which Donald said didn’t support Vaughn’s level of force.
Judy Hodge filed the suit in June 2016 and originally named Blount County Sheriff James Lee Berrong and several other BCSO employees as co-defendants.
U.S. District Judge Pamela Reeves eventually dismissed them from the suit, but allowed it to proceed in March 2018 against Vaughn and the county after dismissing claims of assault and wrongful seizure.
Reeves also previously dismissed one claim against the county alleging liability for failing to train and supervise its officers in the proper use of force and for failing to investigate allegations of excessive force.
Hodge’s suit also notes Vaughn, who had a history of using excessive force, was removed from the patrol unit partly after a 2005 conviction for assaulting a female neighbor while off duty.
The ruling is the second in a week in which a federal judge has denied qualified immunity to a Blount County law enforcement officer.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 21 that Maryville Police Department reservist Maurice Dixon wasn’t qualified for immunity when he held three teens at gunpoint in 2016 after they accidentally struck his truck after hitting a light pole near Seymour.
Like Vaughn, Dixon was off duty at the time.
Huffstetler remembers her father as a loving husband, father and brother who worked hard as an auto repairman and later as the operator of a mobile home park.
“He was the most intelligent person I’ve ever met,” Huffstetler said. “He was a Christian man and he loved to help people who were less fortunate than him. It’s been very hard for our family. I also have two brothers, and it’s been a big loss to us. He died too young. It’s been a big void in our lives. We are very excited to be able to get justice for my father. The main thing is, it changes something in the department so that no one else will be treated the way he was again. Our goal is to get justice for my dad, because he didn’t live long enough to do it himself.”