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Eighth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity for Guards Accused of Deliberate Indifference; $5.2 Million Verdict, $450,000 Settlement on Remand

On August 20, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to six Garland County Adult Detention Center (GCADC) staff accused of deliberate indifference.

On February 13, 2007, when Steven Ross McFarland, an Iraqi war veteran, was arrested and taken to the GCADC in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he was clearly intoxicated. The arresting officer’s report confirmed that he was under the influence, and after a urine sample was taken during booking, test results indicated that McFarland had taken Seroquel, Hydrocodone, Depakote and Ambien. In addition, a prescription for Chlorzoxazone, a muscle relaxer, was found on McFarland’s person. The prescription was only one day old but was missing 21 pills out of the 90 that had been prescribed.

During a drug influence evaluation, McFarland’s coordination was characterized as “poor,” his speech as “slurred,” his face as “flushed” and his eyelids as “droopy.” Additionally, McFarland self-reported that he had taken an “unknown amount” of the drugs discovered in his system. His pulse, blood pressure and temperature were noted as being “down.” Finally, a blood alcohol test confirmed that McFarland had not been drinking.

Rather than immediately sending McFarland to a hospital, jail staff consulted with an on-duty nurse at the jail to determine whether he required hospitalization. The nurse examined McFarland and decided he did not need to be hospitalized, as it appeared that McFarland, who was snoring loudly at the time, “was sleeping off alcohol.” However, jail staff did not tell the nurse about McFarland’s ingestion of drugs, and the nurse did not consult McFarland’s blood alcohol test results which showed he had not been drinking.
McFarland later stopped breathing. Jail officers entered McFarland’s cell but did not perform CPR. He was finally taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe brain injuries stemming from airway blockage.

McFarland’s guardian, Jan McRaven, filed suit against jail staff alleging deliberate indifference to McFarland’s serious medical needs. The district court denied qualified immunity as to six of the jail employees, holding there were genuine issues of material fact as to the defendants’ “subjective knowledge of McFarland’s medical need.” The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

On appeal, four of the defendants argued that they reasonably relied on the jail nurse’s determination that McFarland did not need hospitalization. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, holding that the nurse’s opinion was of little value because the defendants knew about “the cocktail of potent drugs McFarland had consumed,” were aware that McFarland “exhibited symptoms of extreme intoxication,” and knew that the nurse who examined McFarland was unaware of his drug ingestion. It is “unreasonable to rely on a medical assessment grounded on incorrect information,” the appellate court wrote.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals concluded that qualified immunity was properly denied to the nurse who examined McFarland, as well as to the guard who failed to perform CPR after discovering that McFarland was not breathing.

With respect to the nurse, the Eighth Circuit held that the nurse’s failure to consult McFarland’s blood alcohol test results before deciding whether he should be hospitalized “raise[d] an inference of recklessness, if not incompetence, precluding qualified immunity.” As for the guard who failed to perform CPR, “[a]n officer trained in CPR, who fails to perform it on a prisoner manifestly in need of such assistance, is liable under § 1983 for deliberate indifference.”

The judgment of the district court was accordingly affirmed. See: McRaven v. Sanders, 577 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2009).

Following remand the case proceeded to a jury trial in December 2009, resulting in a verdict of $5 million in compensatory damages plus an additional $100,000 each in punitive damages against defendants Sgt. Dan Ansley and Tommy L. Harmon, LPN. The defendants’ motion for a new trial was denied on February 11, 2010, and on March 3, 2010 the district court granted attorney fees to McRaven in the amount of $40,522.71 plus $20,289.50 in costs.

The defendants appealed the jury verdict to the Eighth Circuit, and McRaven appealed the district court’s previous grant of summary judgment, on the basis of qualified immunity, to two other defendants. The parties notified the court in September 2010 that they had agreed to settle the case for $450,000. Consequently, both appeals were voluntarily dismissed. See: McRaven v. Sanders, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 6:07-cv-06019-RTD.

Additional source: Hot Springs Sentinel-Record

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McRaven v. Sanders

McRaven v. Sanders