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No Immunity for Detainee’s Death Due to Alcohol Withdrawal; $1.23 Million Settlement on Remand

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held on November 20, 2012 that a Michigan county and two jail guards were not entitled to qualified immunity for a female detainee’s death due to severe alcohol withdrawal.

Brenda Sue Smith, 37, was booked into the Lenawee County jail on a parole violation at about 5 p.m. on April 27, 2007. Sergeant Mary Neill, who searched Smith, later telephoned jail medical director Dr. Jeffrey Stickney. “She says she drinks every day, she’s an alcoholic,” Neill reported. “She’s shaking really bad.”

Stickney prescribed Librium for alcohol withdrawal, and Smith took the first dose at 9:35 p.m. Later that evening, Sergeant Paul Dye reported that Smith was suffering from “DTs” (delirium tremens).

“I better get some medical attention here because I’m going through withdrawals,” Smith told her mother. “I’m already shaking like a leaf.”

Two days after being booked into the jail, at 3:30 a.m., Sgt. Dye reported that Smith was exhibiting “paranoid behavior and irrational actions,” including singing, pounding on the walls and speaking to relatives who were not present. Other staff witnessed similar behavior.

Jail guard Wendy Vanderpool later testified that Smith was “agitated, talking about things in her life as if she was there and then she was back, you know, in the jail.”

Dye moved Smith to a padded observation cell on April 29. He then called Dr. Stickney at 9:26 p.m. to report that she was “to the point of really bad hallucinations right now.” He stated that Smith had not eaten lunch, was generally agitated and “getting kind of violent about wanting to get out of her cell.”

Stickney assured Dye that “she’s on good medicine,” and said “sitting in the jail will do her some good.” He mentioned he would have the part-time jail nurse examine her the next day.

Smith was so delusional that night that she thought the wall would fall down if she didn’t support it, according to Vanderpool’s testimony. She was “sweaty from holding the wall up.”

By 5 a.m. on April 30, 2007, she was “getting more settled,” and was “on the floor playing with puppy dogs and playing with bugs,” Vanderpool testified.

Almost four hours later, Smith was on her buttocks and knees with her upper torso resting on the cell’s bench. Sergeant James Craig entered the cell, set a cup of water down and left without touching or communicating with her.

Smith’s condition was so bad by 9 a.m. that she could not be served with her parole violation notice. She last moved at 9:19 a.m., and was not breathing when guards entered the cell at 9:50 a.m. Paramedics arrived five minutes later and Smith was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Smith’s mother filed suit in federal court against the county and eight jail employees, including Dr. Stickney, alleging deliberate indifference to Brenda’s serious medical needs and gross negligence under Michigan law. The district court denied qualified immunity to the defendants, who filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Sixth Circuit reversed the denial of qualified immunity as to Sgt. Dye and three other jail guards. Although it presented “a close question,” the Court of Appeals upheld the denial of qualified immunity to Sgt. Craig. Likewise, it was “an extremely close call” for Vanderpool, but because she had worked as a paramedic for 14 years, the Court found that “her exposure to Smith’s condition, her experience, and her inadequate monitoring of a detainee whom she knew to be in dire condition are enough to allow the claim of deliberate indifference to go to a jury.”

Finally, noting the guards’ “admissions that they did not fully grasp the difference

between alcohol withdrawal and its more serious analogue, delirium tremens,” the appellate court upheld the denial of qualified immunity to Lenawee County. “The record is replete with facts that raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the County’s policies and practices in providing medical care in its jail,” the Sixth Circuit noted. See: Smith v. County of Lenawee, 505 Fed. Appx. 526 (6th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, a $1.23 million settlement was reached with Lenawee County, Sgt. Craig, Vanderpool and Dr. Stickney, which was approved by the district court on September 13, 2013. About $439,010 of the settlement went to pay attorneys’ fees and various expenses, with the remainder being placed under the control of a conservator appointed to represent Smith’s minor child. See: Smith v. Lenawee County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:09-cv-10648-DML-MJH.

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