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$4.3 Million Award in Preventable Death of Cook County Pretrial Detainee

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury’s $4.3 million award to the estate of a pretrial detainee. The jurors found that guards at the jail in Cook County, Illinois were deliberately indifferent to the detainee’s serious medical needs, resulting in his death.

Less than a week after his arrival at the notoriously overcrowded Cook County jail on April 24, 2004, Norman Smith, 32, died from pneumococcal meningitis. He was being held pending trial on a charge of possession of a controlled sub-stance.

Routine medical intake by the jail’s private healthcare provider, Cermak Health Services (Cermak), revealed only that Smith had elevated blood pressure, for which he received a week’s supply of medication. However, Smith’s cellmate and other detainees painted a very different picture.

The cellmate, Carlos Matias, said that Smith demonstrated symptoms of illness from the first day he arrived at the jail. He appeared to be dizzy, began vomiting and asked Matias to submit a medical request for him.

Over the next several days Smith’s condition rapidly deteriorated. He was unable to hold down food or maintain conversations with other prisoners. Requests for medical assistance by both Smith and other detainees on his behalf were ignored and no action was taken, assuming the request forms were even collected by Cermak staff.

On April 30, 2004, Matias awoke to find Smith convulsing on the floor. It was an hour later before Smith was finally removed from the cell, which required help from other prisoners because there was insufficient staff on hand to carry him up the stairs on a gurney. He died later that day due to pneumococcal meningitis, a treatable condition.

Smith’s mother, Marlita Thomas, sued Cook County, the Cook County Sheriff, and jail guards Jesus Facundo, Alex Sanchez and Terrence Toomey. The case went to trial in December 2007, and the jury awarded a total of $4,450,000 in damages against the defendants. The U.S. District Court reduced the award to $4.15 million on a motion for remittitur, plus $598,825 in attorney’s fees and $22,839.80 in costs. [See: PLN, Dec. 2008, p.36].

On appeal, the defendants argued the verdict was not supported by evidence or law. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, stating, “The evidence suggests the officers were aware of Smith’s health, either from the inmates’ complaints, or from his visible symptoms.” Moreover, “Smith was lying on the floor in front of the cell – which would have placed him in the direct path of officials when performing their rounds.”

The evidence against Cook County showed a “practice of not retrieving medical requests on a daily basis.” While the jury verdict against the county was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, the verdict against the Sheriff, based on a policy of understaffing, was reversed. There was sufficient staff at the jail, but the guards failed to take “the steps necessary to investigate and ensure that Smith received medical attention.”

Although the case was remanded to the district court to enter judgment in the Sheriff’s favor, that in no way altered the monetary award because removal of the Sheriff from the list of defendants did “not affect the amount of damages to which the plaintiff is entitled,” the appellate court wrote. “That amount remains the same because it is tied to the injury itself.”

The jury’s verdict was affirmed in all respects except as to the Sheriff’s liability. The Seventh Circuit issued an amended decision on May 3, 2010, superseding its original opinion after the defendants’ petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc was denied, but the outcome was the same. See: Thomas v. Cook County Sheriff’s Department, 604 F.3d 293 (7th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Cook County Sheriff’s Department