Lawsuit: Teen With Autism Died After Police Sat On Him For More Than 9 Minutes
NEW ORLEANS — The parents of a teenager with severe autism who died last year following an encounter with Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies have sued the Sheriff’s Office, claiming it is responsible for the actions of seven officers who restrained the teen in a face-down, handcuffed position for more than nine minutes while trying to take him into custody.
Eric Parsa, 16, of Destrehan, lost consciousness and later died after being restrained by the deputies outside of a laser tag in Metairie on Jan. 19, 2020.
“Never did we ever think that our 16-year-old son with special needs would die in front of our eyes and in the hands of law enforcement,” Eric Parsa’s mother, Donna Lou Parsa said as she wept during a news conference held via video conference late last week.
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In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, Parsa and her husband, Daren, accused the deputies of using excessive force — body weight, choke and neck holds and restraints — on the teen with developmental disabilities without taking the basic steps to make sure the teen could breathe.
The family is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
“They knew he was unarmed. Yet they persisted in dangerously and forcefully restraining (Eric Parsa) without appropriately monitoring his condition, until they killed him,” the lawsuit says.
The Sheriff’s Office said the suit is “rife with false claims and malicious accusations.”
“While the Sheriff’s Office remains deeply saddened over this unfortunate loss of life, it does not intend to allow Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies to be maligned and slandered by those seeking to profit from this unfortunate situation,” the agency said in a statement.
The Parsa family was finishing up an outing at Laser Tag of Metairie on Veterans Memorial Boulevard when Eric Parsa experienced a “meltdown,” the lawsuit says, describing it as a “storm” in the brain that can lead to self-injurious or aggressive behavior.
In business surveillance video released by the Parsa family’s attorneys, Eric Parsa can be seen slapping his head repeatedly before reaching out to hit his father. The two struggle for about four minutes before Deputy Chad Pitfield arrives.
Pitfield was off-duty but working a security detail for the Westgate Shopping Center, the strip mall where the laser tag business is located, according to the lawsuit.
Not long after Pitfield arrives, Eric Parsa can be seen in the video hitting himself, his father and then hitting Pitfield, who throws Eric Parsa to the ground. Pitfield then sits on Eric Parsa’s lower torso and rear end and begins to try to handcuff the teen. The lawsuit said Pitfield weighs more than 300 pounds, as did Parsa.
For several minutes, Donna Lou Parsa can be seen kneeling next to her son as Pitfield remained on the teen and other deputies arrived. At some point, Eric Parsa begins to struggle again, prompting the other deputies to join in trying to hold him down.
“Eventually, there were a total of seven JPSO deputies involved, sitting on, handcuffing, shackling, holding down or standing by (Eric Parsa) as he was restrained and held face down on his stomach against the hard surface of the parking lot,” the lawsuit says.
During the nine minutes and six seconds that Eric Parsa was held down in a prone position, none of the deputies moved the teen into a “recovery position” by sitting him up or rolling him onto his side, even though there were several opportunities when he was secure and calm, the family alleges in the lawsuit.
“It wasn’t until his body had gone limp, and he had urinated on himself that the deputies rolled him into a ‘recovery position.’ By then, it was too late,” the lawsuit says.
The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office has not publicly released a cause of death in the case. But according to the lawsuit, the Coroner’s Office says the teen died as a result of “excited delirium due to an acute psychotic episode in the setting of severe autistic spectrum disorder and disruptive behavior disorder.”
The autopsy listed the following contributing factors: morbid obesity, an enlarged heart and the prone positioning. The Coroner’s Office classified the teen’s death as accidental, the lawsuit said.
But the Parsa family’s attorneys don’t believe he fits the definition of someone experiencing excited delirium and said the death should be classified as a homicide.
“Eric Parsa died as a direct result of the actions of the JPSO deputies,” the lawsuit says.
Sheriff’s Office officials say they were trying to control a violent teenager’s outbursts and prevent him from attacking his parents and first responders.
“The case centers on a severely autistic teenager diagnosed with numerous other mental conditions which caused him to have frequent violent outbursts,” they said in the statement. “The teenager beat and bit his own father, causing significant bloody injuries.”
The Parsa family is represented by William Most and Andrew Clarke.
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