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$1.3 Million Settlement in Prisoner’s Death at Michigan Jail; Claims Against Other Defendants Dismissed

$1.3 Million Settlement in Prisoner’s Death at Michigan Jail; Claims Against Other Defendants Dismissed

When Michigan’s Saginaw County agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit stemming from a prisoner’s medical-related death, it may have been left with a case of buyer’s remorse. Following the settlement, the district court granted summary judgment to the remaining defendants after finding the prisoner had received constitutionally adequate medical care – a decision that was affirmed on appeal.

The lawsuit concerned treatment provided to Jerry Rouster, who was serving a three-day sentence at the Saginaw County Jail (SCJ) at the time of his death on May 11, 2007. Although he had had surgery for a bleeding duodenal ulcer (a type of peptic ulcer) the previous year, Rouster reported he had no medical problems during his intake screening on May 7.

The next 40 hours passed uneventfully. But at around 8 p.m. on May 9, personnel from SCJ’s medical contractor, Secure Care, Inc., were summoned to Rouster’s cell and found him “lying on the floor, complaining of stomach cramps and abdominal pain.” He was taken to the clinic for examination.

Nurse Cathleen Conley gave him Tums for diarrhea and gas. Three-and-a-half hours later he was vomiting, then a short time later he started “eating all leftover food on the floor” and drinking water out of the communal toilet. Conley did not personally witness these events, but the last report compelled her to have Rouster moved to a medical cell for observation.

After shift change, Nurse Debra Marrs took over at 6 a.m. She became concerned about Rouster’s condition because he was “speaking quietly, [had] jetting eyes, hands with tremors, [and was] not aware of date.” She called Dr. Joseph Natole, who prescribed 50 mg. of Librium and ordered a clinical institute withdrawal assessment (CIWA). The CIWA score was 15, which indicated mild-to-moderate withdrawal symptoms; anything above that score makes treatment by hospitalization rather than medication appropriate.

Rouster lay on the floor of his cell until a medical exam was performed at 7:30 p.m. on May 10. It found that he appeared confused, his skin was cool to the touch, and he had a slight tremor and unsteady gait. Nurse Conley gave him medication for alcohol withdrawal after midnight, and scored him 6 on a CIWA test.

The exact time of Rouster’s death was unclear, but he was found dead in his cell at 5:45 p.m. An autopsy later revealed he had died of peritonitis caused by a perforated duodenal ulcer. Rouster’s family filed a wrongful death suit in federal court against Saginaw County, Secure Care and individual defendants. The county agreed to settle for $1.3 million.

In ruling on Secure Care’s motion for summary judgment, the district court found that “Rouster’s death, tragically, may have been preventable. Nothing, however, suggests that it was deliberate.” The court held there was no direct evidence that any of the defendants had actual knowledge that Rouster’s stomach pain was symptomatic of a serious medical condition, and there was no indication he was at an obvious risk of harm.

The district court also found Secure Care was not deliberately indifferent by failing to properly train and supervise its staff. Such a claim requires a violation of constitutional rights, and the court held no violation had occurred. Having disposed of the constitutional claims, the court declined to exercise jurisdiction over state law claims, and the case was dismissed in April 2013.

The claims brought against Secure Care and Saginaw County were identical; thus, it appears that had the county moved for summary judgment rather than settling the case, it would have saved $1.3 million. See: Rouster v. County of Saginaw, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:11-cv-10986-TLL-CEB.

Rouster’s estate appealed the district court’s summary judgment order to the Sixth Circuit, which issued a ruling on April 9, 2014. The appellate court affirmed, finding that the Secure Care defendants had not been deliberately indifferent to Rouster’s medical needs. With respect to Nurse Conley, the Court of Appeals wrote, “Although it was obvious to a layperson that Jerry suffered from some kind of serious illness, Conley was not subjectively aware that Jerry was suffering from a more serious condition than the alcohol withdrawal with which he had been diagnosed.”

In regard to Nurse Marrs, “Rouster cannot prove that Marrs was subjectively aware of Jerry’s serious medical needs and was deliberately indifferent to his welfare.” And as to Secure Care, “private corporations cannot be held liable on the basis of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. Accordingly, a plaintiff must prove both ‘that his or her constitutional rights were violated and that a policy or custom of the municipality was the “moving force” behind the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights.’” But since the Sixth Circuit had affirmed the district court’s finding that the company’s employees were not deliberately indifferent, “we need not consider whether Secure Care’s staffing or training policies might have caused such a violation.” See: Rouster v. County of Saginaw, 749 F.3d 437 (6th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal cases

Rouster v. County of Saginaw

Rouster v. County of Saginaw