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Eighth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Detainee’s Overdose Death

Eighth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Detainee’s Overdose Death

by Mark Wilson

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held on September 20, 2013 that an Arkansas jail guard was not entitled to qualified immunity for his deliberate indifference to a detainee’s serious medical condition which resulted in the detainee’s death.

On December 18, 2008, Saline County deputy sheriff Stephen Furr arrested Johnny Dale Thompson, Jr. During the arrest, Deputy Furr discovered an empty Xanax bottle that indicated it had been filled with 60 pills two days earlier. Thompson, who was slurring his words, admitted to taking medication and slept in the patrol car, but was easily awakened at the jail.

Jail guard Ulenzen C. King conducted Thompson’s booking process. King noted that Thompson appeared intoxicated; he asked to sit down but nearly fell out of the chair. He was unable to sign his name and “couldn’t even answer questions that Officer King was asking him.” King wrote “Too Intox to Sign” on the booking sheet.

Sometime after Thompson was placed in a cell at 7:42 p.m., another detainee alerted King that Thompson needed help, but King did nothing.

At 9:09 p.m., King and another jailer entered Thompson’s cell and discovered he was “cool to the touch, not breathing, and non-responsive.” He was pronounced dead at a hospital around 20 minutes later.

An autopsy revealed that Thompson had ingested a cocktail of drugs, including hydrocodone, methadone and alprazolam. The medical examiner classified his death as accidental.

Thompson’s mother filed suit in federal court against Saline County and several individual defendants. The district court granted qualified immunity to all the defendants except Furr and King; both then filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Eighth Circuit observed that its review was limited to determining whether Furr and King knew that Thompson had a serious medical need but deliberately disregarded that need.

The appellate court followed Grayson v. Ross, 454 F.3d 802 (8th Cir. 2006) in holding that Furr lacked subjective knowledge that Thompson required medical attention. As such, it concluded that Furr was not deliberately indifferent to Thompson’s medical needs and was entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court of Appeals found, however, that “Ross does not compel the same conclusion for Officer King.” Rather, Thompson “presented a noticeably more intoxicated condition during his encounter with Officer King than the detainee in Ross.”

Given the information available to King when Thompson was booked into the jail, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity, holding that “a reasonable jury could find that ... King had subjective knowledge of a serious medical need and deliberately disregarded that need.” See: Thompson v. King, 730 F.3d 742 (8th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, the case went to trial in January 2014 and the federal jury found in favor of King, resulting in no recovery for Thompson’s estate.



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Related legal case

Thompson v. King