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$70,000 Jail Medical Neglect Death Award Upheld

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict of $70,000 in a prisoner's death at the Williamson County Jail in Texas. The suit was filed on behalf of the prisoner's estate by his parents, alleging he suffered cruel and unusual punishment. The defendants appealed the jury's award.

The defendants argued the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court found the evidence showed that jail officials were told by the prisoner's mother upon his admittance that he had high blood pressure and a virus. Two days after his incarceration, the prisoner became delusional, irrational, afraid, and mumbled incoherently. When he asked for medication he was told he already received it. When he asked to see a doctor, he was told he was not sick and was just joking. Later that night, the prisoner was yelling that he needed help, but received none. The next day the prisoner was found dead in his cell.

The Court held the evidence was sufficient to show a cold hearted, causal unwillingness to investigate what can be done for a man who is obviously in desperate need of help." Therefore, the jury's finding was upheld and the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The district court's judgment was upheld. See: Fielder v. Bosshard, 590 F. 2d 105 (5th Cir. 1979).

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Related legal case

Fielder v. Bosshard

590 F.2d 105

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

Lonnie Elbert FIELDER et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,


August H. BOSSHARD et al., Defendants-Appellants.

No. 76-4376.

Feb. 21, 1979.

Parents of deceased prisoner filed a civil rights action against jail officials, alleging violation of decedent's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment while incarcerated. The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, at Austin, Jack Roberts, J., awarded actual and punitive damages to plaintiffs, and defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals, Fay, Circuit Judge, held that: (1) there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding of cruel and unusual punishment, including testimony that defendants were callously indifferent to decedent's repeated requests for medical help; (2) when the jury was instructed that, in order to find defendants liable, it had to find a "conscious purpose to inflict suffering" or "rampant deficiencies" due to a "callous indifference" to the prisoner's medical needs, it was adequately apprised of the threshold conduct necessary to negate defendants' qualified immunity; accordingly, there was no error in failing to give separate charges with respect to liability and immunity, though this would have been the better practice, and (3) the jury's award of compensatory damages in the amount of $70,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $29,000 had evidentiary support.


*107 Ed C. Small, Jr., C. C. Small, Jr., Austin, Tex., for defendants-appellants.

Waggoner Carr, Robert L. Crider, Austin, Tex., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for Western District of Texas.

Before INGRAHAM, GEE and FAY, Circuit Judges.

FAY, Circuit Judge:

Lonnie and Edna Fielder, father and mother of decedent Jimmie Fielder, brought this s 1983 [FN1] action as next of kin against Sheriff August Bosshard, Chief Deputy Daniel Walker, Deputy William Chandler, and Jailer Robert Champion (hereinafter "the appellants"). The basis of the suit is the appellants' alleged violation of Jimmie Fielder's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment while he was incarcerated in the Williamson County, Texas jail. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs against all of the defendants. Actual and punitive damages of $40,000 and $20,000 respectively were assessed against Sheriff Bosshard, and against Jailer Champion in the amounts of $10,000 and $9,000 respectively. Actual damages of $20,000 were charged against Deputy Walker. No damages were assessed against Deputy Chandler. The trial court denied the appellants' motions for summary judgment, directed verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict and new trial.

FN1. 42 U.S.C. s 1983.

The appellants raise four points on appeal: 1) the evidence does not support the jury's finding of cruel and unusual punishment; 2) the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury with respect to the appellants' qualified immunity; 3) the plaintiffs failed to prove causation; and 4) the evidence does not support the jury's award of compensatory and punitive damages. We affirm.

According to Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976), Remanded, 554 F.2d 653 (5th Cir. 1977), and this Circuit's interpretation of it, to prevail in a s 1983 suit based on cruel and unusual punishment a prisoner must prove that "the conduct in question runs counter to evolving standards of decency or involves the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Bass v. Sullivan, 550 F.2d 229, 230 (5th Cir. 1977) (interpreting Gamble ). At a minimum, the plaintiff must show that prison officials acted with a conscious or callous indifference to his serious medical needs. Id. Mere negligence, neglect or medical malpractice is insufficient.

Viewing the facts in the manner most favorable to the appellee,[FN2] we hold that the plaintiffs have proved their case. On July 2, 1976, Jimmie Fielder was arrested by appellants Walker and Chandler for failure to make child support payments. They were told that Fielder was sick and under medication. He was taken to the Williamson County Jail. Robert Champion, the jailer, was informed by Fielder's mother that Fielder was sick, that he had a virus and high blood pressure, and that he hadn't eaten. When told that Fielder hadn't eaten, Champion responded: "We feed them black coffee and biscuits." When Mrs. Fielder brought buttermilk and soda to the jail, Champion threw it in the cell "like he was feeding a bunch of hogs." Finally, Mrs. Fielder pointed out that her son needed attention and that it was very hot in the jail. Champion replied: "If you don't like the way I run this jail, you go to higher authorities." Although these comments and others to follow do not in themselves establish cruel and unusual punishment, they reflect the appellants' attitudes. When considered in conjunction with the *108 events leading up to Jimmie Fielder's death, these statements tend to show that the appellants were not merely unmindful or negligent prison officials.

FN2. Boeing v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 375 (5th Cir. 1969).

At noon on July 4, 1976, Fielder's behavior became bizarre. Fellow prisoners testified that he seemed physically sick and that he began to see things, such as the Lone Ranger. By sundown he was seeing Indians. He was physically shaking. He climbed the bars, saying that there was barbed wire on them and that he was cutting his hands. Fielder's condition worsened as the day progressed. At around dinner time, the prisoners called Jailer Champion. At the time Champion arrived, Fielder was jumping from the top bunk to the lower one on the other side. Fielder asked Champion for his pills. Champion replied that Fielder had already taken them. Fielder then requested a doctor. Champion refused. He said that Fielder was "just joking," that he wasn't sick. An inmate testified that Champion responded in this way each time he was called that night.

At 9:00 P.M. on July 4, Champion called the sheriff's office to inform them of Fielder's condition. Deputies Chandler and Walker went to the jail, and the three men escorted Fielder to a cell on the second floor. Fielder was irrational, afraid, mumbling incoherently, and waving his arms. The jailer and the two deputies maintained that he was faking. The inmates testified that they forcibly removed Fielder from the cell and that it sounded like they were hitting him. Deputy Walker later stated in his report to Sheriff Bosshard that Fielder was just "putting on."

At 10:00 P.M. Champion looked in on Fielder through the glass panel in the cell door. He later checked two more times in this way, but Fielder showed no improvement. Opal Birch, a neighbor to the jail, testified that at approximately 10:00 P.M. she heard a voice from the jail say "Help me. I need a doctor." An inmate testified that he heard moaning coming from the upstairs cells at 1:00 A.M. on July 5. Although he stated that he lives in the jail and he can generally hear the prisoners call him, Champion denied hearing any of this.

At 12:30 A.M. on July 5 Champion informed Sheriff Bosshard that Fielder was suffering from delirium tremens and that he had been seeing Indians, mumbling and pacing the floor when Champion checked on him at 10:30 P.M. Bosshard didn't ask how long Fielder had been acting this way or whether they had called a doctor. Bosshard asked Deputy Walker to check on Fielder, but he did not inquire whether Walker had actually done so. Shortly after midnight, on July 5, Deputy Walker left with the sheriff a report describing Fielder's strange behavior of a few hours before. Bosshard did nothing.

At 7:00 A.M. on July 5, Champion looked into Fielder's cell. Fielder was lying quiet on the bare floor. Without first checking on Fielder, Champion reported to Bosshard, who advised him to do so. Jimmie Fielder was dead.

There was sufficient evidence in the record to support the jury's decision that Fielder was a victim of cruel and unusual punishment. Each of these four appellants knew of the extremity of Fielder's illness. Their defense was based in part upon the contention that Fielder was a known heavy drinker and that they thought he was exhibiting the symptoms of delirium tremens. However, both the severity of the apparent illness and the appellants' off-hand, callous comments with respect to Fielder's welfare belie the theory that they merely misdiagnosed a prisoner's sickness. There is a vast difference between an earnest, albeit unsuccessful attempt to care for a prisoner and a cold hearted, casual unwillingness to investigate what can be done for a man who is obviously in desperate need of help.

The jury was carefully and correctly charged that mere negligence was insufficient to sustain a finding for the plaintiffs. The jury obviously believed that the appellants had crossed the line between misfeasance and conscious cruelty. In a case such as this, where the attitudes and states of mind of the defendants weigh so heavily, we are quite reluctant to read between the *109 lines of the record. We commit our trust to the jurors who saw and heard the witnesses.