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Wrongful Death Suit Against Illinois Jail Survives Summary Judgment

Richard J. Gonzalez, 30, was being held at a jail in Ford County, Illinois when his already precarious health took a turn for the worse. On the evening of May 18, 2012, Gonzalez was found on the floor of his cell, apparently suffering from a seizure. He was transported to a hospital, treated and returned to the jail. Four days later he complained of chest pains and was placed in a detox room monitored by a video camera. The next day, on May 23, 2012, Gonzalez died in his cell; an autopsy found he had suffered a seizure and aspirated fluid into his lungs.

Gonzalez’s family filed suit in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming Ford County and five individuals as defendants and alleging wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, respondeat superior and a claim under the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which was denied by the district court in a text-only entry with “a written order to follow.” Before the written order was entered, however, the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal to the Seventh Circuit, while Gonzalez countered with a motion to have their appeal certified as frivolous.

On December 4, 2015 the Seventh Circuit remanded the case “for the limited purpose of requesting that the district court provide a statement of reasons for its summary judgment denial,” and to rule on the motion to certify the appeal as frivolous. Twelve days later the district court entered an order addressing those issues.

According to the court, “The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require prison officials to provide ‘adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care’ to prisoners, and ‘take reasonable measures’ to ensure their safety. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994); Sain v. Wood, 512 F.3d 886, 893 (7th Cir. 2008). To establish an Eighth Amendment violation, the plaintiff must show that the inmate was harmed and that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to that harm.... Prison officials are deliberately indifferent if they (1) know about an excessive risk of harm to the inmate, and (2) disregard that risk.”

The court wrote that “In this case, the defendant officers knew that the evening shift officers were so concerned about Gonzalez that several calls were made to the doctor, who instructed them to keep Gonzalez under observation and take him to the hospital if his condition worsened. Thus, they knew that his condition was objectively serious.”

Despite having this knowledge, on the night that Gonzalez died, according to the complaint, the defendants failed to properly monitor his medical condition. Although the guards who were supposed to be observing him said he was alive 30 minutes before his estimated time of death, the judge was not convinced, instead accepting the testimony of Illinois State Police Sergeant Kenneth Mass and Special Agent Chris Koerner, who investigated and found the guards had “provided false information.” This testimony resulted in the case being reviewed for possible criminal prosecution, though charges were never filed.

The district court also found the Ford County Sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity and denied Gonzalez’s Monell claim, holding that while the jail had no policy for monitoring sick prisoners or performing more frequent cell checks, “the lack of specific policies or practices was not the moving force of the violation in this case.” Lastly, the district court held the defendants’ appeal was not frivolous. The case remains pending. See: Gonzalez v. Ford County, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 2:13-cv-02115-HAB. 

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Related legal cases

Gonzalez v. Ford County

Sain v. Wood

Farmer v. Brennan