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Summary Judgment for Illinois Jail Nurse Reversed in Wrongful Death Suit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of a nurse at Illinois’ Peoria County Jail (PCJ) who was accused of providing deliberately indifferent medical care to a prisoner.

India Taylor was arrested and taken to the PCJ on October 15, 2003. Taylor, who suffered from congestive heart failure, did not feel well during the booking process. She complained of chest pain and told guards the next morning that she was vomiting and suffering from heroin withdrawal.

Around 9 A.M., Taylor saw Pam Hibbert, a contract nurse at PCJ. Taylor’s blood pressure was up and she continued to complain of nausea. Hibbert, however, sent Taylor back to her cell. Later, during a video bond hearing, Taylor vomited violently. Guards present during the hearing collected Taylor’s vomit and notified Nurse Hibbert.

Rather than see Taylor, Hibbert told guards to have her fill out a sick-call request and she would be seen in the morning. Hibbert was getting off in a few minutes and did not want to take time to deal with Taylor. Besides, Hibbert thought Taylor was faking her illness in order to obtain drugs.

Guards helped Taylor fill out the request, and she was scheduled to see the jail’s doctor the next morning. However, Taylor did not make it through the night; she died around 3:40 A.M.

One of the guards who tried to get Nurse Hibbert to see Taylor was so bothered by Hibbert’s brush off that she filed a “jail incident report” against Hibbert, accusing her of ignoring a significant medical problem. Taylor’s estate sued Hibbert and other jail staff, arguing that Taylor received deliberately indifferent medical care.

All of the medical experts in the case agreed that Taylor had died from heart failure. However, the plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Corey Weinstein, attributed Taylor’s death to the conduct of jail medical staff. Specifically, Dr. Weinstein concluded that Taylor’s vomiting in combination with taking diuretics may have contributed to her heart failure. Dr. Weinstein also suggested that had acceptable medical standards been followed, Taylor’s death could have been prevented.

The district court, however, excluded Dr. Weinstein’s testimony and granted summary judgment to the defendants. Taylor’s estate appealed and the Seventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Concerning the exclusion of Dr. Weinstein’s testimony, the Court of Appeals held that the district court erred in deeming the doctor’s testimony unreliable. “Dr. Weinstein, based on his medical experience, provided a sufficient scientific basis for his position that, among other things, Taylor’s vomiting could have exacerbated her heart condition and hastened her death,” the appellate court wrote. And while the district court was critical of Dr. Weinstein’s failure to provide another possible cause of Taylor’s heart failure, the Seventh Circuit emphasized that “an expert need not testify with complete certainty about the cause of an injury; rather he may testify that one factor could have been a contributing factor to a given outcome.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to Hibbert. “Given that Nurse Hibbert refused to treat or even see Taylor in spite of her serious medical condition, a jury could easily find that her actions surpassed mere negligence and entered the realm of deliberate indifference.”

The judgment of the district court granting summary judgment to Nurse Hibbert was therefore reversed. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the remainder of the defendants. The case settled following remand. See: Gayton v. McCoy, 593 F.3d 610 (7th Cir. 2010), rehearing denied.

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Related legal case

Gayton v. McCoy