Skip navigation

Sixth Circuit Affirms Denial of Jail Nurse’s Qualified and Sovereign Immunity Defenses

Sixth Circuit Affirms Denial of Jail Nurse’s Qualified and Sovereign Immunity Defenses

by Derek Gilna

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a decision by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio that denied Richland County Jail Nurse Jennifer McCune’s motion to dismiss. McCune asserted both qualified and sovereign immunity defenses to a lawsuit filed by the estate of deceased prisoner, Michael P. Reid. The Appellate Court found that McCune, chief nurse at the Mansfield, Ohio facility, had been “deliberately indifferent” to the needs of Reid, a pre-trial detainee, who died despite personally warning the defendant that he was prone to seizures if he was deprived of alcohol.

Reid, a chronic alcoholic, was arrested in February 2009 and charged with resisting arrest and violating his probation by consuming alcohol. On April 2, 2009, he was taken into custody by probation officers, who noted that Reid registered a blood-alcohol level of .349, over four-times the legal limit. Reid advised the arresting officers that he had a history of seizures when he stopped drinking and told them several times to make the jail personnel aware.”

During intake, McCune, a Licensed Practical Nurse, and a certified entry-level Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-Basic), failed to note that Reid had medical files at the jail from four earlier arrests detailing his chronic alcoholism, but did note to the arresting officer “that if we keep him ... he will go thru (sic) withdrawal and we will treat him here.”

The Court noted that McCune, as a qualified medical professional and based on additional evidence, had personal knowledge of Reid’s risk of seizures. McCune gave instructions to the staff for his treatment; she claimed that she had ordered extra sleeping mats to be placed in the cell as a “significant safety precaution…so that if he was to fall, that it would cushion him.”

However, the testimony noted that only one mat was placed in Reid’s cell, that he was not monitored on a regular basis, and died as result of traumatic brain injury from a fall resulting from a seizure. “That the Eighth Amendment protects against future harm to inmates is not a novel proposition,” Helling v. McKinnery, 509 U.S. 25, 33 (1993), the Court therefore “reject[s] the proposition that only deliberate indifference to current serious health problems of inmates is actionable under the Eighth Amendment.” Id. at 34.

The court noted that “[i]t has long been established that, under the eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, prisoners have a constitutional right to medical care.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1976).

“This determination of a ‘sufficiently serious medical need is predicated upon the inmate demonstrating that he or she is incarcerated under conditions imposing a substantial risk of serious harm.’” Miller v. Calhoun Cnty, 408 F. 3d 803, 812 (6th Cir. 2005).

The court concluded that “Reid’s extremely elevated .349 blood-alcohol level and verbal communication of a history of alcoholism accompanied by withdrawal seizures communicated an objectively serious medical need possessing the ‘sufficiently imminent danger’ that is ‘actionable under the Eighth Amendment.’” The fact that McCune acted in a reckless manner by “a perverse disregard of a known risk,” she was not entitled to the defense of sovereign immunity. See: Stefan v. Olson, 497 Fed. Appx. 568 (6th Cir. Ohio 2012).

Related legal case

Stefan v. Olson