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Fifth Circuit Upholds $355,000 Award Against Dallas County in Jail MRSA Case

On January 13, 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a judgment in a lawsuit filed by a former prisoner who contracted Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) while incarcerated at the Dallas County Jail, resulting in the loss of sight in one eye. The federal district court jury had awarded a total of $355,000 in damages. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.16; July 2010, p.16].

On December 12, 2003, Mark Duvall was arrested and admitted into the Dallas County Jail. Within the first week of his incarceration he began experiencing cold sweats, fever, uncontrollable vomiting and swelling in his legs and feet. Despite repeated requests he did not receive medical attention.

By the time he was released on bail on December 26, 2003, Duvall was seriously ill with a systemic MRSA infection that had started in his feet. He went to a hospital emergency room, collapsed and was admitted for emergency surgery that drained one gallon of fluid from his right leg and two-and-a-half quarts from his left leg. He spent 30 days in the Intensive Care Unit in an isolated “clean room.” The infection that nearly killed him also rendered him blind in one eye.

Duvall filed a federal civil rights action claiming that Dallas County was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. The jury agreed and awarded him $40,000 for past pain and suffering, $30,000 for past mental anguish and emotional pain, $75,000 for past physical impairment, $75,000 for future physical impairment, $100,000 for past medical care and rehabilitation services, $20,000 for past loss of life enjoyment and $15,000 for future loss of life enjoyment, for a total of $355,000 excluding attorney fees. The county appealed.

Without mentioning the amount of the jury award in its opinion, the Fifth Circuit held that Duvall had proven that he contracted MRSA at the jail and had experienced great physical suffering. The appellate court noted that the Dallas County Jail had a prisoner MRSA infection rate of close to 20% in 2003 while comparable jails had an infection rate of 1 to 2%, and that a MRSA outbreak had been ongoing for at least three years.

There was sufficient evidence that “the Sheriff and other jail officials had long known of the extensive MRSA problem yet had continued to house inmates in the face of the uncontrolled staph contamination. Testimony was presented that it was feasible to control the outbreak through tracking, isolation, and improved hygiene practices, but that the County was not willing to take the necessary steps or spend the money to do so.”

Without deciding whether Duvall – a pre-trial detainee – had to prove deliberate indifference, the Fifth Circuit held that the jury’s finding of deliberate indifference was sufficient even though it was made in the context of determining municipal liability. The jury also found that Duvall’s injuries were caused by a policy or custom of the county, which satisfied the need to show a connection between the defendant and the constitutional violation. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Unmentioned was Duvall’s allegation that after Dallas County had signed a jail medical care contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston for a flat rate of $5.49 per prisoner per day in January 2003, prisoners were routinely denied medical treatment, which was known to the county. Duvall was represented by Dallas attorney Edward H. Moore. See: Duvall v. Dallas County, 631 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2011), petition for cert. filed.

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Related legal case

Duvall v. Dallas County