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Michigan Jail Nurse Denied Qualified Immunity in Detainee Death Case

By Mark Wilson

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of a Michigan jail nurse’s motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity ground related to a prisoner’s death from untreated alcohol withdrawal.

On March 1, 2004, Larry Bertl was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Michigan. His blood-alcohol level was 0.26. During his arraignment the next day, the court noted Bertl was shaking. He said he had not taken his prescription Phenobarbitol since the previous day. The court again observed during Bertl’s March 3, 2004 sentencing that he displayed alcohol withdrawal symptoms known as delirium tremens (DTs).

During transport later that day, Bertl could not clearly respond to questions and police suspected he was again experiencing DTs. On May 4, 2004, transport officers were told that Bertl had DTs but had been medicated and was medically cleared for transport. Bertl had to be helped into the van and he became increasingly delusional during the trip.

Upon arrival at the Dickerson Police Facility, guards had to carry Bertl from the van. They laid him on the cell floor and told staff that he might be in DTs and needing medical attention. Nurse Renella Thomas, RN, responded.

Thomas learned Bertl was in custody on an alcohol-related charge. He was non-responsive and shaking uncontrollably. However, Thomas never entered the cell and she refused to evaluate him until guards “dressed out” Bertl in prison clothes. She left the area and did not return. When guards went to “dress out” Bertl, they noticed he was not breathing. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Kelli Bertl, representative of Bertl’s estate, sued and the case was moved to federal court. The district court denied Thomas’ motion for summary judgment, concluding “that evidence that Thomas failed to enter Bertl’s cell and check his vital signs, ordered that guards dress Bertl out before taking him to the medical clinic and failed to call a doctor established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Thomas was deliberately and indifferent to Bertl’s medical needs.”

The Sixth circuit affirmed. It first concluded that it does “not have jurisdiction to consider factual and evidentiary disputes arising in interlocutory appeals.” Therefore, it could not entertain Thomas’ argument that the district court wrongly considered hearsay evidence.

The court concluded that “Bertl demonstrated the existence of a sufficiently serious medical need,” thereby satisfying “the objective component of the eight amendment deliberate indifference claim.” Additionally, “given the evidence present by Bertl, a jury could find that Thomas possessed subjective knowledge, and that Bertl satisfied the subjective component of the deliberate indifference claim. Thomas possessed awareness of facts from which she could infer that a substantial risk of harm existed, and that she also drew that inference.”
The court further found that Thomas did not comply with jail policy and her “seeming nonchalance in the face of Bertl’s visibly severe medical symptoms belies her argument that her conduct, at most, constituted negligence or mistaken judgment.

Citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 US 97 (1976) and Scicluna v. Wells, 345 F.3d 441, 447(6th Cir. 2003), the court observed that “Thomas’ conduct violated clearly established law, and that the unlawfulness of those actions would be apparent to a reasonable official.” See: Bertl v. City of Westland, 2009 WL 247907, C.A.6 (Mich.), 2009.

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Related legal case

Bertl v. City of Westland