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Federal Court Abused Discretion in Denying Wrongful Death Claim with Prejudice

Federal Court Abused Discretion in Denying Wrongful Death Claim with Prejudice

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of deliberate indifference claims against a sheriff and health care provider for a woman’s death in an Illinois jail. But, while the Court held that the lower court’s dismissal of a state wrongful death claim was proper, its dismissal with prejudice was not, without allowing the plaintiffs to file the required affidavit and medical report.

Janet Hahn, a diabetic, was a pretrial detainee at Champaign County Correctional Center (“CCCC”) for several days. After a guard’s attempts to test Hahn’s blood sugar failed, she refused to allow any staff member to test her again. She subsequently died from a diabetic complication.

Patrick Hahn, her husband, and Eric Redwood, her estate administrator, filed suit in federal district court against, among others, Sheriff Daniel Walsh and Health Professionals Ltd. (“HPL”)—CCCC’s medical provider—and its nurses, raising several claims including deliberate indifference and wrongful death. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice. On August 12, 2014, the appellate court agreed that the plaintiffs had not established deliberate indifference through a lack of policies or training or through deficient policies, but the appellate court reversed as to the dismissal with prejudice of the wrongful death claim. The court stated the claim should not be dismissed with prejudice without allowing the plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint.

On June 15, 2007, Hahn was arrested for domestic violence. Upon intake at the CCCC, she said that she was suicidal and a diabetic, but refused to inform staff of the type of insulin she took and to sign a release for her medical records. Per CCCC’s policy, Hahn was placed on suicide watch. That evening, a guard served Hahn a meal and later Hohn flooded her cell, which resulted in the water being shut off. At 7:40 p.m., Sergeant Michael Johnson checked her blood sugar with an Accu-Chek glucose meter, which she recorded at 160. An HPL nurse advised that the reading was acceptable and Hahn received no insulin.

Sergeant Johnson informed jail and medical staff of Hahn’s difficult behavior. Karee Voges, a guard aware of Hahn’s behavior from a prior detention, brought cups of water throughout the night and into the morning of June 16, and also offered her breakfast. Hahn refused the meal, which Voges documented. That same morning, Hahn was seen by Susan Swain, an HPL nurse, because Hahn’s blood sugar level was 396. Refusing a request to go to the infirmary, Hahn did allow Swain to administer insulin at her cell. Alyson Morris, an HPL mental health clinician, saw Hahn on two occasions that day and commented to CCCC staff that Hahn was “mentally retarded and a poor historian.”

At approximately 4:00 p.m., a guard tested Hahn’s blood sugar and recorded it at 107. Later that evening, Hahn refused dinner, and a detainee who had observed her said that she did not look well. The next morning, Voges attempted to test Hahn’s blood sugar twice and received an “E” reading both times with the Accu-Chek, indicating an unspecified error. Staff failed to document this error. From that point, until the early morning of June 18, 2007, Hahn refused meals and requests to test her blood sugar or to otherwise cooperate. Hahn reported vomiting, but staff observed no sign of ill health. However, two detainees testified that overnight a woman had been complaining that she needed insulin.

By approximately 6:00 a.m. on June 18, guards realized that Hahn was very sick. Soon afterwards, medical staff referred her to the hospital and she was diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis, arising from a buildup of glucose due to a lack of insulin. She died later that day.

Mr. Hahn and Mr. Redwood filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in June 2009 against Sheriff Walsh, HPL and unnamed jail and HOP staff, among others. The plaintiffs alleged deliberate indifference, loss of consortium, violation of two federal acts and violation of the Illinois Wrongful Death Act. None of the claims were successful before the district court. The plaintiffs appealed the district court’s rulings.

The appellate court first assessed the wrongful death claim. Illinois law requires that such a claim be accompanied by (1) an affidavit by the plaintiff that after consulting with a health care professional, the professional believes that a meritorious cause of action exists and (2) “[a] copy of the [professional’s] written report.” The plaintiffs argued that the state rule was procedural and conflicted with the controlling Federal Rules of Civil Procedure’s Rule 8 or 11.

Federal law requires that “if a . . . federal rule of procedure conflicts with state law,” the federal rule must be applied unless” a substantive right under state law” would be “abridge[d].” First, the appellate court found no conflict: the state law deals “with a pre-suit consultation and related attachments.” Rule 8 “provide[s] a defendant with fair notice of the claims against him” and Rule 11 “is about attorney conduct,” so all three” may be enforced simultaneously in diversity cases.” The appellate court went on to say that a seemingly procedural state rule that has a narrow substantive scope –namely the wrongful death statue—“must be applied by federal courts in diversity.”

While this holding supported the district court’s dismissal of the wrongful death claim, the appellate court disagreed as to the dismissal with prejudice, rejecting the justification that the “[p]laintiffs clearly failed to provide the required affidavit and report] and the statute of limitations has passed.” The district court had abused its discretion where it had not indicated bad faith by the plaintiffs’ counsel and where state law encourages amendment to correct the deficiency, even in cases involving failed deadlines as long as the original complaint had been properly filed.

As to Sheriff Walsh’s alleged deliberate indifference, the plaintiffs argued that the jail lacked a written policy covering diabetics “whose blood sugar was being measured and who refused to eat.” The plaintiffs had to establish that the absence of a policy led to a pattern of unconstitutional actions. The appellate court held that seven unrelated deaths, complaints from a former diabetic detainee about his treatment and an e-mail Walsh should have received about Mrs. Hahn were insufficient to put Walsh on notice of any constitutional violations.

The appellate court next determined that HPL could not be liable under respondent superior for its employees’ actions even if the issue had been raised by the plaintiffs. HPL could be liable, however, by an injury through an unconstitutional policy. The plaintiffs argued such injury through HPL’s policies of not automatically obtaining detainees’ medical histories, of not providing insulin based on a generic scale and of ignoring errors from the Accu-Chek machine. On the first two policies, the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate how either not obtaining Mrs. Hahn’s records or administering insulin had caused her death.

As for the Accu-Chek machine, the plaintiffs argued that an alternate method for testing blood sugar should have been available. The appellate court disagreed, concluding that a policy existed for rechecking when the machine failed, yet because errors could be due to the operator and “[a]bsent evidence that the machine was inoperable a significant number of times” due to its malfunction, a lack of “an alternate testing device” did not establish deliberate indifference. See: Hahn v. Walsh, 762 F.3d 617 (7th Cir. 2014).      

Related legal case

Hahn v. Walsh