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Defense Verdict in Kentucky Prisoner’s Death; Appellate Court Reverses

A Kentucky state jury found for the defendants in a lawsuit alleging a jail guard and nurse failed to monitor and treat a pretrial detainee’s serious medical condition, resulting in her death. Recently, however, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Melissa Czaja, 34, was arrested for an outstanding warrant on a traffic violation on July 26, 2012, and booked into the Bullitt County Jail with a $34 bond. She was placed in a common cell with other detainees. One of her family members arrived at the jail shortly thereafter with $35 to post bond, but officials required exact change.

Upset that she had not been released, Czaja pressed the cell’s buzzer several times. Guard Laura Worman, who was nicknamed “Shrek” and reportedly known to be oppressive, responded. A confrontation ensued, resulting in Czaja calling Worman a “bitch.” In turn, Worman claimed that Czaja attacked her, lodged a charge of assault on a detention officer and placed Czaja in solitary confinement. Witnesses testified that Worman was the aggressor.

The assault charge prevented the family member from posting bond when they arrived with $34, as the new charge had increased the bond amount. On her fifth or sixth day in solitary, Czaja became sick and the next day she was vomiting. Upon arrival to work on August 3, 2012, Worman failed to check on Czaja’s condition or open her cell for an assessment. LPN Donna Bullock, who worked for the jail’s for-profit medical contractor, Southern Health Partners (SHP), was called to evaluate Czaja.

Bullock noted that Czaja “appeared ill” but took no further action. Later that same day, Czaja was found “nearly unresponsive,” and urine and bloody vomit were observed in her cell. Rather than call an ambulance once the decision was made to take Czaja to a hospital, she was shackled and transported in a jail van.

At the hospital, Czaja was diagnosed with a progressive hypoglycemic brain injury, which would have been treatable if caught early. The delay in treatment, however, resulted in Czaja falling into a coma. She died a week later after her family decided to discontinue medical treatment.

Czaja’s estate filed a wrongful death suit. After trial, the jury found that Worman was not liable for false imprisonment or negligence, and that neither Bullock nor SHP was negligent. The estate had argued that SHP staffed the jail with an LPN who was poorly trained and cheap to hire, implying the company put profits before adequate medical care.

The estate did not assert a claim of death consortium on behalf of Czaja’s three minor children; had it done so the outcome may have been different, as during deliberations the jury asked who would benefit from a verdict in favor of the estate – Czaja’s children or her mother. See: Czaja v. Bullitt County Jail, Bullitt County Court (KY), Case No. 10-1344.

The estate appealed the jury verdict and the trial court’s prior partial summary judgment order, and on February 12, 2016 the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded in an unpublished decision.

In reciting the facts of the case, the appellate court emphasized that Czaja had a bond of just $34 when she was initially booked into jail. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the jail employee defendants, finding they were not entitled to qualified official immunity because their actions were ministerial, not discretionary. The Court held the defendants had “failed to comply with [ ] policies and procedures of the detention center” that were written in mandatory language.

The appellate court also held the trial court had used an erroneous jury instruction. While Kentucky uses a “bare bones” approach to jury instructions, the Court of Appeals noted they “must include all the bones.” Here, the jury was not told that it could consider Czaja’s pain and suffering, only her death. Consequently, the case was remanded for a new trial. See: Czaja v. Fackler, 2016 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 131 (Ky. Ct. App. 2016).

Additional source: Kentucky Trial Court Review

Related legal cases

Czaja v. Fackler

Czaja v. Bullitt County Jail


 

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