Tucson wrongful death lawsuit challenges ketamine use

TUCSON – David Cutler, 23’s family believe he would be alive today if first responders gave him water and shade instead of handcuffs and ketamine, a powerful sedative and pain reliever.

Ketamine has become a controversial sedative that can be used as a chemical agent for someone with “agitated delirium” and has been linked to several deaths in police custody across the country.


In June 2017, David was in Tucson to visit his brother. The 23-year-old was discovered hiking in the desert after a jeep accident.

The Pima County sheriff’s deputies held David on a hill. They couldn’t get him down the hill, so a paramedic came from the rural area and injected the young man with ketamine to restrain him.

David died a short time later.

“David’s included in the time,” said his father Robert Cutler. “We can only imagine what he would be like and that was taken from us.”

David was partying the night before, and relatives and authorities say he took LSD. Its effects were unclear on the morning of June 5th. Robert said his son woke up that day, took photos of Tucson, and then drove across town to go off-roading in a desert area.

David hit a tree and the jeep went up in flames. First responders put out the fire, but David was missing for two hours.

A local resident spotted him on a hill and called 911.

It was noon and about 98 degrees outside when Keith Barnes, deputy sheriff of Pima County, answered.

“He said [David] was hot – red as a fire box, ”said Robert.

There are no body cams because Pima County MPs don’t wear cameras. However, a proxy recorded a cell phone video after David was handcuffed and his feet were restrained.

Deputy Barnes had asked the Rural / Metro Fire Department to send medics and said “maybe they can give him something,” the court records read.

“He’s still delusional and combative with us,” said one MP in the video, “We still need some help up here.”

“He’s wrongly labeled [David] always ‘combative’ ”, said Robert.

David’s father believes he was dehydrated, suffered from heat exhaustion and may have sustained a head injury from the Jeep crash.


The Arizona Department of Health allows paramedics to inject ketamine into patients who display agitated, violent, uncooperative behavior, or pose a danger to themselves or others, according to ADHD Triage, Treatment, and Transportation Guidelines, updated in 2019.

The guidelines warn against using ketamine in people with head trauma, low blood sugar, or similar health conditions. There is also a warning of shortness of breath or danger.

The coroner ruled that David died of hyperthermia and overheating. His body temperature was measured at 102.9 degrees. The coroner stated that the LSD in David’s system contributed to his death, but he did not name ketamine as a factor.

Current Arizona guidelines also say the maximum starting dose of ketamine is 250 milligrams. In 2017, according to the Rural / Metro paramedic’s court files, David Cutler received about 300 milligrams, which also stated that he was following the “protocol” for “agitated delirium.”

ADHD guidelines recommend that paramedics injecting ketamine connect the patient to a cardiac monitor as soon as possible and, if possible, use an electronic respiratory monitor known as EtCO2.

Phoenix Fire Captain Rob McDade, who is also a paramedic, defends the use of ketamine in people delirious due to drug use or behavioral crises.

“We’ve done it tens of thousands of times,” said McDade, “without anyone having cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest.”

McDade said police do not influence Phoenix paramedics on when to inject the drug, and two paramedics always discuss ketamine use and the appropriate dosage.

“They believe this is the safest, most effective way to get someone into a position where they can’t harm themselves,” said McDade. “We don’t just find someone and then push them on with everything.”

McDade said paramedics also make sure they are protecting the patient’s airway and monitoring vital signs.


Across the country, more young men have died in police custody shortly after being given ketamine. The most notable case is Elijah McClain from Aurora, Colorado.

In 2019, McClain, 23, was walking home when Aurora officials stopped him. McClain fought with the officers. He was placed in a carotid artery and handcuffed.

When the ambulance arrived, a medic injected 500 milligrams of ketamine, which was more than the maximum recommended dose for Elijah’s 140-pound body.

Elijah stopped responding and died three days later. The coroner said the cause of death was “undetermined,” but could not rule out ketamine.

“Arresting someone and using ketamine shouldn’t be considered gentle or easy,” said Leslie Herod of Colorado, USA. “It’s a violent and dangerous drug that kills people.”

Herod, a Denver Democrat, supported state law earlier this year to ensure that ketamine and other chemical restrictions are only allowed in emergency situations, when medical professionals can monitor vital signs and weigh the person to ensure an accurate dosage.

The bill also prohibits peace officers from deploying or influencing the use of chemical restraint agents. There are civil and criminal consequences.

“There are other ways to overwhelm someone,” said Herod. “To be honest, in many of these cases there was no resistance to arrest. There was no need to submit. “

The governor of Colorado signed the bill last month.

“In my opinion, it is unacceptable for law enforcement agencies to administer ketamine to overwhelm a person arrested outside of a hospital,” Rep. Neguse told the Denver KMGH in June.


In their lawsuit, the Cutlers alleged that the deputy failed to provide someone in his care with common sense such as water. They also alleged that the medic negligently administered ketamine without due consideration of David’s health condition.

“It’s a problem with the police and the ambulance service – disregard for the people you are supposed to help,” said Robert. He supports the Colorado law restricting ketamine use and believes Arizona should consider similar laws.

Late last month, a federal judge dismissed the case against Pima County and the sheriff’s deputy, saying his actions were protected by qualified immunity.

PCSD also said in a statement to ABC15, “We do not have a chemical retention policy as we do not administer chemical retention drugs. We also do not lead or advise medical personnel on the use of medication. “

The case against the paramedic is ongoing. There’s a hearing next month. A Rural / Metro spokesman said they were unable to comment due to the pending litigation.

This department continues to supply ketamine to their paramedic kits.

Do you have a news tip? Email ABC15 investigator Melissa Blasius at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


Comments are closed.