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No Qualified Immunity for Ignoring Heart Condition Leading to Prisoner’s Death

No Qualified Immunity for Ignoring Heart Condition Leading to Prisoner's Death

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's denial of qualified immunity to jail officials who ignored a detainee's medical distress, causing his death.

Walter Gordon, Jr., was arrested in Washington County, Minnesota for driving without a license. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail but was released to a hospital for treatment of heart problems after serving five days. He did not return to jail after treatment, and a warrant was issued for him to serve the time remaining on his sentence.

One year later, Gordon returned to the hospital complaining of pain but left without being treated. Gordon called police for a ride home. He was arrested on the outstanding warrant and returned to jail.

"He immediately complained of pain and informed?staff that he had pneumonia, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and diabetes."

The jail nurse "placed Gordon on 'high observation' for 24 hours."

At 11 p.m., Gordon was taken to his cell. He asked guards Lois Arends and Vincent Deschene, for help climbing the stairs. They refused and he climbed the stairs.

"Between 11:55 p.m. and 12 a.m., Gordon rang the officers' intercom three times. Both officers answered the calls." Each time, Gordon complained of medical problems. Arends told Gordon he had been seen, there were no orders to provide him with medication, and medical staff would see him in the morning. "She threatened to place him in lockdown if he continued to buzz for non-emergency issues. Gordon did not buzz again."

Guards conducted wellness checks every 30 minutes throughout the night. During two of those checks Gordon complained to Deschene of trouble breathing and requested medication. "At 5:15 a.m., Deschene noticed that Gordon lay partially propped against the wall, blood flowing from his mouth, eyes open, and no sign of breathing--Gordon died of hypertensive and atherosclerotic heart disease."

Cynthia Gordon sued the County, the sheriff and individual defendants, including Arends and Deschene, in federal court, alleging that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to her husband's serious medical needs. The district court denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified and official immunity.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed on interlocutory appeal. In rejecting Defendants' qualified immunity defense, the court found that "a reasonable officer would consider chest pain and difficulty breathing to be symptoms that require medical attention to anyone who claims to have heart disease. The intentional delay by these officers shows deliberate disregard sufficient to reject qualified immunity." Citing Plemmons v. Roberts, 439 F.3d 818 (8th Cir. 2006), the court found Defendants' conduct unreasonable because a "reasonable officer would do more than dismiss Gordon's complaints given the seriousness of his symptoms and the screening information available." Guards "knew of Gordon's high risk and disregarded it, violating his Eighth Amendment rights."

The court also held that Defendants were not entitled to official immunity, as defined by Minnesota law, because they failed to follow their ministerial duty as outlined in the sheriff's policy. "Because the officers have no official immunity," the court concluded that the County "has no vicarious official immunity." See: Gordon v. Frank, 454 F.3d 858 (8th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Gordon v. Frank