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Sixth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Jail Medical Indifference Suit

by Matt Clarke

On November 4, 2010, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed the summary judgment granted to Michigan jail and medical personnel based on fatal deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs.

Deceased former Muskegon County Jail prisoner Vernard A. Jones, Jr., was incarcerated in segregation in the jail as a pretrial detainee for six months. A couple of months after he arrived at the jail, Jones began complaining of severe pain in his intestines, difficulty defecating, inability to eat and extreme weight loss. Guards and medical personnel allegedly ignored Jones's condition and requests for medical treatment for another three to four months before a doctor finally saw him. However, the doctor misdiagnosed his problem as intestinal blockage and gave him a laxative. A week later, the emaciated prisoner was finally sent to a hospital where an inoperable massive tumor was discovered. He died in a puddle formed by his burst colostomy sack in his jail cell a few days later.

Vernard A. Jones, Sr., personal representative of his son's estate, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against a doctor, three nurses and twenty-one guards who worked at the jail, alleging deliberate indifference to serious medical needs and the state law torts of gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The primary evidence used by the father was affidavits of other prisoners who, with one exception, depicted guards and medical personnel ignoring or even ridiculing Jones's request for medical attention without identifying them by name or the incidents by time. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted, finding that the affidavits were insufficient evidence due to the lack of names and times and the doctor's misdiagnosis "was not so 'woefully inadequate' as to amount to deliberate indifference." The father appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that, since Jones obviously had a sufficient medical need, the question was whether defendants were subjectively indifferent to that need. It found that the affidavit of the prisoners did not prove subjective indifference with the exception of one prisoner who had overheard a conversation between nurses Nancy Mastee and William Yonker in the medical department over three months before Jones died. In the conversation, the nurses purportedly discussed the written requests for medical care Jones had been sending in to the medical department complaining of abdominal pain and his fear that he might have cancer. They then "agreed that he was faking it, and lying, and looking for an easier way at the jail." The Sixth Circuit held that "this evidence is sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Nurses Mastee and Yonker knew of the risk to Jones's health yet consciously disregarded this risk" resulting in an extended delay before Jones received medical care.

The Sixth Circuit also held that the district court applied too stringent of a standard in determining whether the gross negligence claim was viable. Applying the correct standard, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the gross negligence claim survived against Nurses Mastee and Yonker, but not against any other defendants. Likewise all other claims against all other defendants failed. Therefore, the judgment was reversed with respect to the § 1983 and gross negligence claims against Nurses Mastee and Yonker and affirmed in all other respects. The case was returned to the district court for further proceedings. Jones was represented by Grand Rapids attorney Steven L. Skahn. See: Jones v. Muskegon County, 625 F.3d 935 (6th Cir. 2010), rehearing denied.

The case partially settled following remand, in November 2011.

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Related legal case

Jones v. Muskegon County