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No One Liable for Denial of Medical Care to Houston Jail Asthmatic

The plaintiff was arrested and arrived at the police station having an asthma attack. She asked to see a doctor and was told that the clinic was closed. She said she was not medically screened; the clinic assistant on duty claimed that he did screen her, even though there was no record to that effect. In court the next day, she could not stand up. The judge, on hearing her story, said the clinic was never supposed to be closed and ordered a guard to take her there for treatment. He did not; he put her in a holding cell and led her to an eating area, where she fainted, and was subsequently sent to an emergency room, where she lapsed into a coma, required a respirator, and temporarily lost her eyesight.

Under Fifth Circuit law, because this case involved an "episodic act or omission," individual liability is governed by the subjective deliberate indifference standard and municipal liability by the objective deliberate indifference standard (though only if subjective deliberate indifference is found on the part of an individual employee).

The plaintiff's medical needs were not serious at the time she told the police officer defendants she had asthma and that they were walking too fast, and she was wheezing and experiencing shortness of breath. They were serious at the time she was "coughing really bad and wheezing really loud" and asked to go to the clinic, or the time when she couldn't stand up in court.

The police officers couldn't be found deliberately indifferent, since one of them got her inhaler for her.

The clinic assistant also cannot be found deliberately indifferent, since the only direct evidence of his mental state is his own affidavit, which contains no evidence that he knew of a risk to the plaintiff or deliberately disregarded a risk. At 528:

[The plaintiff] urges us to infer Bertrand's subjective knowledge from the fact that, although a trained emergency medical technician, he walked away from his post. Without a doubt, such behavior is unmistakably dangerous as it means that patients with quiet but potentially life threatening medical conditions will be left to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, liability attaches only if Bertrand actually knew--not merely should have known--about the risk.
The court doesn't say exactly what risk it's talking about or how it is that something "unmistakably dangerous" can be a risk that is not known.

The fact that there was a consent decree in place requiring intake medical screening and an on-call physician 24/7 did not support the defendant's deliberate indifference absent evidence that he knew about it or when he started work for the city. See: Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston, 185 F.3d 521 (5th Cir. 1999).

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Related legal case

Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston