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Federal judge says wrongful death lawsuit against Portland firefighter can move forward

Judge Nancy Torressen also found 'plausible' evidence that Portland police, firefighters 'were unprepared to deal with ... people experiencing mental health crises.'

PORTLAND, Maine — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the city of Portland and three first responders be dismissed for all except one firefighter.

John Cohen is suing the city of Portland, two police sergeants and a Portland firefighter, alleging they didn't do enough to help his son during a mental health crisis.

Eric Cohen, 25, died April 12, 2020, after running naked into Back Cove.

A lawsuit filed in September 2021 by Cohen said nine police officers and fire-rescue personnel "lined the shore and watched Cohen, about thirty feet offshore, flounder in the water," although they knew that if he remained in the water he would not survive long.

Bodycam video taken that day and used as evidence in court shows police officers and firefighters standing by as Eric Cohen struggled in the water for more than 25 minutes before being rescued.

According to the suit, "The officers were aware that if Cohen remained in the water, he had a very limited time to live, yet they made no attempts to coax Cohen out of the waist-deep water or to rescue him using available equipment, such as a rope or ring."

Instead, the suit claims, one officer stood on the shore with a police dog and another, Portland firefighter Ronald Giroux, allegedly shouted that if Cohen came out of the water, he would "kick his ass."

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen dismissed the wrongful death charges for all of the first responders except Giroux. 

Torresen said Giroux "enhanced the danger that Cohen was in."

The city of Portland is also accused of not properly training first responders to deal with a situation like this.

In her decision Wednesday, Torresen wrote, "Taken together, these facts suggest that numerous members of the Portland Police and Fire Departments were unprepared to deal with situations involving people experiencing mental health crises and/or those in need of water rescue, allowing me to draw an inference that the City failed to train its officers."

"Furthermore," she continued, "the Complaint plausibly alleges facts that allow me to infer that the deficiency in training caused the officers' indifference to Cohen's constitutional rights, ultimately leading to Cohen's death."

City officials told NEWS CENTER Maine on Wednesday that they had just received the decision and will be reviewing it to determine next steps.


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