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Utah Nurse Must Face Wrongful Death Suit Says 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

On March 3, 2021, the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, in part, a Utah court’s decision concerning a wrongful death suit on behalf of a 21-year-old inmate.  The court’s  decision affirmed that the jail’s doctor could claim qualified immunity.

After her death, the 21-year-old inmate’s estate sued the county and its officials in a cause of action claiming she was deprived her of her civil rights, under federal law.  The U.S. district court granted summary judgment in favor of the county and qualified immunity to jail supervisors and staff.  However, it denied qualified immunity to jail nurse Jana Clyde and a private doctor who consulted with the prison, Dr. Kennon Tubbs.

The 10th Circuit panel reversed the lower court’s decision and stated that the doctor is entitled to claim qualified immunity.  It held, however, that the jail nurse herself must face claims of civil rights violations.

The court filings allege that jail staff, including the nurse, ignored the inmate’s rapidly deteriorating health, resulting in the inmate’s death.

These cases are always tragic. Someone who seems otherwise completely physically healthy can wind up arrested and confined awaiting trial, and the next thing the family knows is that they are dead. It is especially disturbing when the inmate had mental health issues and should not have been in a jail in the first place. County officials, especially sheriffs and the medical personnel in charge of inmate health, must be more vigilant in addressing the medical needs of those in their charge.  Otherwise, they can expect a lot more litigation and even more action to have state legislatures and Congress change the laws that protect them from liability.

Failure to Secure Medical Treatment Despite Obvious Risks to the Inmate.

In 2016, Madison Jensen died from opiate withdrawal at the Duchesne County jail. After the 21-year-old was booked, she was placed in a cell with another woman.  She almost immediately experienced vomiting, which continued for 5 days.  However, the jail’s nurse allegedly failed to tell the physician’s assistant or the doctor about Jensen’s condition, according to the complaint.

The jail’s video recording system allegedly captured the female inmate rolling off her bed and having a seizure.  About 30 minutes later, both the nurse and doctor discovered she had died in her cell, the complaint said.  The inmate’s cause of death was stated to be cardiac arrhythmia from dehydration due to opiate withdrawal.

Civil Rights Violation Claims.

After her death, her estate sued under federal law for depriving Jensen of her civil rights.  The United States District Court for the District of Utah granted summary judgment for the county and qualified immunity to the jail supervisors and staff.  However, it denied qualified immunity to the jail’s nurse and the contracted doctor.  Jensen’s estate claims that the jail’s nurse exhibited deliberate indifference to the inmate’s serious medical needs, because she failed to secure medical treatment for the inmate despite obvious signs.  In response, the nurse argued that she took reasonable steps to provide care and that she wasn’t aware that the inmate faced serious medical needs.

The U.S. Tenth Circuit judges held: “The unique circumstances of this case” allow the doctor to raise the qualified immunity defense. As for the jail’s nurse, the court’s decision said:  “A trier of fact could conclude that she did not just misdiagnose Ms. Jensen, she ‘completely refused to fulfill her duty as gatekeeper.'”  According to the opinion, the nurse showed “near complete indifference” towards the inmate that “grossly deviated from the standard of care for treating severe dehydration, especially when the result of a failure to treat is death.”

“We believe that these circumstances — particularly her self-report that she had been vomiting for four days and could not keep down water — present a risk of harm that would be obvious to a reasonable person,” the court said. To read more, click here for the court’s opinion in full.

Of course, this isn’t the first case of a jail inmate’s family suing after improper care. Click here to read about a similar wrongful death suit of a Florida inmate.

Additional Comments.

In most cases, county officials and employees enjoy sovereign immunity from liability.  This means that they cannot be sued personally but, instead, the county or agency has to be substituted for them, in accordance with each state’s laws.  There is an exception, however, when a state employee violates someone’s federal or constitutional civil rights.  Civil rights violations can be pursued in federal court or state court.  A state employee does not usually have immunity for civil rights violations.  Where someone intentionally violates a person’s civil rights, exhibits deliberate indifference, or acts grossly negligent, then this shows a knowing violation that can result in liability.

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O’Brian, Rachel. “10th Circ. Says Nurse Must Face Wrongful Death Suit.” Law360. (March 13, 2021). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toff-Free: (888) 331-6620.

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