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No Qualified Immunity for Guards Who Failed to Help Vomiting Prisoner Who Died

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has affirmed a denial of qualified immunity for three Greene County, Arkansas jail guards accused of violating a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights.

On January 4, 2002, Phil E. Blount, a moderately obese man who suffered from mental illness and a variety of other maladies, vomited and requested medical assistance for over seven hours while incarcerated at the Greene County Jail. Despite the obvious seriousness of Blount’s condition and his repeated requests for medical assistance, jail guards Christopher Gray, David Wanner and Michael Johnson did nothing. Instead, they attributed Blount’s vomiting to his having ingested shampoo some hours earlier. Blount died early the next day; an autopsy revealed that his death was due to a heart attack.

Blount’s sister, Susan Vaughn, filed suit against the guards alleging violations of Blount’s Eighth Amendment rights. The district court denied qualified immunity and the defendants appealed.

On appeal, the guards did not dispute that they were aware of Blount’s vomiting or his requests for medical assistance. Rather, they asserted that their failure to act did not constitute deliberate indifference because they thought Blount’s vomiting was caused by his ingestion of shampoo and not some other, more serious condition.

Recognizing that “an official’s failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not” does not violate the Eighth Amendment, the Eighth Circuit still found that “a reasonable jury could determine that [the guards] were actually aware that Blount needed medical attention, but simply chose to do nothing about it.” The guards’ “self-serving contention that they did not have the requisite knowledge does not provide an automatic bar to liability in light of the objective evidence to the contrary,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The district court’s denial of qualified immunity was therefore affirmed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Vaughn v. Gray, 557 F.3d 904 (8th Cir. 2009).
According to attorney Lawrence W. Jackson, who represented Blount’s family, following remand the case settled for $62,500, which included attorney fees.

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Related legal case

Vaughn v. Gray