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$2.75 Million Verdict in Dehydrated Michigan Prisoner’s Death

A Michigan federal jury awarded $2.75 million to a prisoner’s estate in a case claiming deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. The prisoner, Jeffrey Clark, was having mental health problems and died due to the effects of dehydration and inhumanely hot conditions in his segregation cell.

While in the chow hall at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility on June 29, 2003, Clark lost his balance and fell to the ground while standing in line. After falling, he “exhibited bizarre behavior such as ‘barking’ like a dog, tensing his arms and legs and other portions of his body and crying, and was obviously in need of medical assistance and care.”

Prison officials did not seek a medical evaluation or assistance, nor did they prepare an incident report. Instead, they took Clark to an observation cell where he continued his erratic and bizarre behavior. Guards told other prisoners that Clark was “faking.” A few hours later prison staff tried to return him to general population, but he refused and sat on the floor of the cell.

An assessment was then requested by the prison’s Psychological Services Unit. Despite temperatures reaching over 100 degrees in his cell on June 30, Clark was not eating or drinking fluids. He continued to act strangely, yelling and talking to himself. On July 1, Sergeant Michael Harvey ordered the water to Clark’s cell shut off.

When psychologist Mark Fox evaluated Clark through a slot in his cell door, Clark requested that the water be turned back on. Despite finding that Clark was exhibiting signs and symptoms of mental illness, dehydration and other heat-related conditions, Fox did not order any action because staff felt he was faking and being manipulative.

Clark continued in those hellish conditions until his death on July 3, 2003. The civil rights complaint filed by Clark’s estate charged that it was clear to anyone who saw him that he was experiencing a medical emergency by “exhibiting obvious signs of heat edema, heat syncope, heat cramps, large amounts of sweating, and dehydration” while “locked in an extremely hot cell without ventilation or fluids immediately prior to his death.”

Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials had a duty to provide or obtain medical treatment for Clark consisting of electrolyte replacement, increased fluid intake, increased salt intake, intravenous re-hydration, removal of heat, rapid reduction of core body temperature, cardiac monitoring, and/or hospitalization. Instead, no action was taken to save his life.

On May 4, 2007, a jury awarded Clark’s estate $250,000 in actual damages against four defendants. It also awarded punitive damages of $1,250,000 each against Fox and Harvey, resulting in a total award of $2.75 million. The state has appealed the verdict.

The district court subsequently awarded $205,814.38 in attorney fees and costs of $10,712.34. The court declined to apply 25% of the judgment toward payment of the attorney fees pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2), finding that the amount of the fee-shifting provision was discretionary. In keeping with the message sent by the jury, the court ordered that only $1 in attorney fees would be satisfied from the damage award. Clark’s estate was represented by attorneys Geoffrey Fieger and Paul Broschay. See: Murphy v. Gillman, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:03-cv-00145-AJT (May 20, 2008); 2008 WL 2139611.

PLN previously reported two other cases involving the dehydration deaths of Michigan prisoners in extremely hot observation or segregation cells, including the deaths of Timothy Souders [PLN, Oct. 2008, p.16; May 2007, pp.1,7,8] and Ozy Vaughn [PLN, Oct. 2008, p.40].

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Related legal case

Murphy v. Gillman