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Judge Reduces Damage Award Against PHS In New York Jail Heart Attack Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

In July 2005, a New York federal jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and $632,988 in punitive damages to a jail prisoner who suffered permanent disabilities when treatment for his heart attack was delayed for three critical days by indifferent guards and medical staff.

Byron Lake, then 52 years old, and serving a sentence for DUI, was imprisoned in the Schoharie County jail. On August 15, 1998, he suffered classic heart attack symptoms: breathing difficulties, chest pain and radiating pain to his arm and neck.

He reported this to jail staff, but because no doctor or nurse was on duty, the sergeant placed him in a holding cell for two hours while Lake continued to complain. He was then taken to the Schenectady County Jail to be seen by a nurse employed at that facility by EMSA Correctional Care [later bought out by Prison Health Services (PHS)].

The nurse placed him on the medical tier, where his symptoms worsened. One day later Lake lost consciousness and was brought back to the nurse, who gave him an inhaler and notified the EMSA doctor 2½ hours later by phone. Nonetheless, Lake was not seen by a doctor until he was taken to a local hospital after several more hours. There, doctors determined that Lake had suffered a heart attack 2½ days earlier. Represented by Albany attorney Kevin Luibrand, Lake filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint named both counties, EMSA, PHS and several county employees as defendants, alleging cruel and unusual punishment, denial of medical care, unconstitutional county practices and policies, and failure to train and supervise staff.

The district court instructed the jury that to find the requisite deliberate indifference would require a finding that defendants contemplated a condition of urgency that may result in degeneration or extreme pain." But the jury was told they must first find that the deprivation occurred because of the policy, custom or practice of the municipal defendants." The jury found both counties liable for a total of $150,000, as well as the nurse and EMSA. PHS became liable as successor owner of EMSA and from indemnification of the counties through its contract. The $632,988 punitive damages award was solely levied against EMSA.

However, On Dec. 29, 2005, District Court Judge Donald E. Walter set aside the punitive damage award, holding that none of the defendants had acted with malicious or callous indifference to Lake's medical needs." The finding of liability and the award of compensatory damages and attorney fees was upheld. We knew when the verdicts were reached that the battleground (for appeals) were the punitive damages," said Luibrand. It's good that the liability remains with EMSA and the county of Schenectady.

In other incidents involving the private prison health care companies, PHS lost its contract with Schenectady County in 2004 following the death of Brian Tetrault at the county jail. The 44-year-old prisoner died when his Parkinson's medication was stopped. But EMSA later dodged a bullet in April 2005 when jurors declined to award damages in the May 4, 2000 death of 20-year-old Jason King in Florida's St. Lucie County Jail. The jury did find EMSA negligent in its jail medical services, but decided that the negligence was not a legal cause of King's death, since his death was due to King's taking medication traded from a fellow prisoner. See: Lake v. County of Schoharie, U.S.D.C., N.D. N.Y., Case No. 9:01-CV-1284. The court's opinion, complaint and verdict are posted at

Other sources: New York Law Journal, Palm Beach Post, Times Union.

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Related legal case

Lake v. County of Schoharie