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CMS Nurse Denied Summary Judgment for Failure to Treat Prisoner for Heat Illness;$400,000 Settlement Following Sixth Circuit Ruling

by David M. Reutter

In February 2009, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of summary judgment to a Correctional Medical Services (CMS) nurse in a lawsuit that accused her of failing to properly treat a Michigan prisoner for heat sickness, which left him a quadriplegic.
On July 7, 2002, a scorching day that reached nearly ninety degrees, Carson City Correctional Facility prisoner Luis Dominguez attended a one-and-a-half hour outdoors weight-training session. When he had finished working out, he felt dizzy and unable to catch his breath. After about twenty minutes he was able to walk to his housing unit.

Upon arrival at the unit, Dominguez informed guard Crystal Galvan-Casas that he was not feeling well. She told him to take a shower, but when he returned a short time later looking “wobbly,” she called CMS nurse Julie Fletcher to advise that she thought Dominguez may be suffering from heat exhaustion.

In response to Galvan-Casas’ call at 3:30 p.m., Fletcher said she would not see Dominguez until 7:00 p.m. and or-dered him to “drink fluids, lie down, and rest” in the non-air-conditioned housing unit until then. When Galvan-Casas made rounds at 4:00 p.m., Dominguez was vomiting and sweating profusely. Fletcher relented and said she would see him right away.

When Dominguez arrived at the medical unit, Fletcher took his vital signs but not a core temperature reading. He vomited a clear substance during the examination. After consulting a physician’s assistant at a local hospital, Fletcher or-dered Dominguez to return to his cell, drink water, avoid sports and weight lifting, and take aspirin. She then filled out a Suspected Heat Related Illness Report Form. While Dominguez returned to his cell, an unoccupied air-conditioned cell remained empty in the medical unit.

During her rounds at 6:30 p.m., Galvan-Casas found Dominguez unconscious on the floor and was unable to wake him. Fletcher was contacted, and she said to give him water. A second call ten minutes later informed Fletcher that Dominguez had revived but vomited when he drank the water. She said to bring him to medical, where he reported he was dizzy and his entire side felt “prickly.”

After consultation with a doctor by phone it was determined that Dominguez was suffering from dehydration, requiring his placement in an air-conditioned area with ice applied to his armpits and groin. Fletcher then left Dominguez with a guard while she passed out medication to other prisoners. At 7:25 p.m. Dominguez’s speech became slurred, and he slumped in his wheelchair and began shaking uncontrollably. Shortly thereafter he became “completely non-responsive.”

Emergency medical services took him to a hospital. Dominguez survived, but in a “’locked-in state’ as a quadriplegic with limited communication but complete consciousness.” He was given a medical parole in 2002 and discharged in 2004.

Dominguez filed suit in federal court against Fletcher, CMS and a number of other defendants, arguing that they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. He raised claims under the Eighth Amendment plus state law gross negligence claims. Fletcher filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity and immunity from tort li-ability under Michigan law; her motion was denied by the district court, and she took an interlocutory appeal.

The Sixth Circuit held that Dominguez’s right to medical care was clearly established and Fletcher was not entitled to qualified immunity. The appellate court found that Fletcher knew the serious risks associated with heat-related illnesses and dehydration, but “ignored and/or acted with deliberate indifference when faced with those risks.” Further, she was not entitled to immunity for gross negligence under Michigan law. As such, the district court’s order denying Fletcher’s motion for sum-mary judgment was affirmed. See: Dominguez v. Correctional Medical Services, 555 F.3d 543 (6th Cir. 2009).

Following remand, the case settled in July 2009. According to an ex parte order entered by the district court, the total amount of the settlement was $400,000, of which $177,516,25 was allocated to attorney’s fees and costs. Another $50,000 was deducted for payment to the Michigan Department of Community Health to resolve a Medicaid lien against Dominguez, and $2,500 was paid to an attorney for establishing a special needs trust. After the deductions, $169,983.75 was placed in the trust for Dominguez. See: Dominguez v. Correctional Medical Services, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:05-cv-72015-GCS-VMM.

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Dominguez v. Correctional Medical Services

Dominguez v. Correctional Medical Services