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Federal Jury Awards $530,000 for Wrongful Death in Minnesota Jail

On February 26, 2007, a federal jury in Minnesota awarded $530,000 to the family of a man who died in his cell after jailers and medical staff at the Washington County Jail repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical assistance.

Walter Gordon made a fatal mistake on January 2, 2004?he requested help from the local police.

Gordon had been hospitalized for pneumonia in Maplewood, Minnesota, from December 29, 2003, until January 1, 2004. On January 2 Gordon had difficulty breathing and returned to the emergency room. He left after becoming frustrated at the long wait and had a local restaurant employee call Maplewood police to give him a ride home to get his medication and seek treatment elsewhere.

A police officer picked Gordon up, and, doing what cops do, immediately ran a warrant check. The check revealed that Gordon was wanted in Washington County.

A year earlier, on January 9, 2003, Gordon had been imprisoned in the Washington County Jail to serve out a misdemeanor sentence for driving with a suspended license. The following day Gordon suffered a heart attack and had to be transported to the hospital. He was released early from jail due to his medical problems.

Now, however, the Washington County probation department decided he needed to serve the remaining five days of that sentence and had issued a warrant for his arrest. Gordon was promptly transferred to the Washington County Jail without obtaining the medical attention he had called police for in the first place.

At the jail Gordon?s situation only worsened. He told booking officers that he was in severe pain and was having difficulty breathing. The jail?s videotape showed him having difficulty sitting upright. Gordon told the jailers that he suffered from hypertension, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and pneumonia and requested immediate medical attention.

The jail?s nurse, Allen Clevenger, noted that Gordon?s blood pressure was extremely high (200/90) and that his respiration was high. Still, Clevenger took no action.

Jailers also noted--in their own reports--that when escorting Gordon to his cell, he had great difficulty ascending the stairs. According to the complaint, Gordon would ?place the bin containing his property two to three stairs ahead of him, and then hold the handrails as he struggled up each step.?

Once he was in the cell, jailers continued to ignore Gordon?s repeated pleas for medical assistance and even threatened him with disciplinary action if he continued to ?ring the intercom for non-emergency issues.?

Gordon was found dead in his cell at 5:15 a.m. the next morning. The autopsy report listed the cause of death as hypertensive and atherosclerotic heart disease.

Gordon?s wife, Cynthia Gordon, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota alleging that the deliberate indifference to her husband?s serious medical needs violated his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

A jury agreed and awarded Ms. Gordon a total of $530,000: $300,000 in actual damages for deliberate indifference, $200,000 in actual damages for negligence, and $10,000 apiece against defendant jailers Lois Arends, Vincent Deschene, and David Frantsi. The judge later reduced the damage award to $330,000.00 and the case settled for that amount and an additional $143,000 in fees and costs.

Ms. Gordon was represented by Jordan S. Kushner of the Minneapolis Law Office of Jordan S. Kushner. See: Gordon v. Frank, USDC D MN, Case No. 0:04-CV-02928 (DSD-JJG).

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Related legal case

Gordon v. Frank