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Tennessee Jail Seizure Death Claims Survive Dismissal; Physician Claims Dismissed for No Deliberate Indifference Allegations

A Tennessee federal court dismissed deliberate indifference claims against a jail doctor for a prisoner's seizure death, absent allegations of his personal involvement or awareness. The court refused to dismiss claims brought against the private medical care company or the nurses who were present.

Sevier County, Tennessee, contracted with First Med, Inc., a private health care company, to provide jail medical care. Jail physician, Dr. Robert M. Maughon, MD, is the sole owner of First Med Inc. Jail Nurse Supervisor Tammy Finchum and Nurse Jessie Timbrook are First Med employees who work at the jail.

On February 20, 2011, Billy Duane Foster began serving a sentence in the Sevier County Jail. At about 7:22 a.m., on February 27, 2011, Foster suffered a seizure. Soon thereafter, Nurse Timbrook witnessed him having another seizure. At 8:12 a.m., Foster was moving with a staggering gait and was oriented only as to place. He was apparently not treated and there is a dispute as to whether Timbrook even took his vitals.

Timbrook was called again at 4:00 p.m., when Foster had another seizure. She was present when he suffered another seizure at 4:36 p.m.

At that time, Timbrook finally concluded that Foster needed to go to the emergency room. However, Nurse Supervisor Finchum overruled her, instructing Timbrook to simply monitor him every two hours.

Timbrook witnessed a fifth seizure at 5:15 p.m. Finchum again instructed her to simply recheck Foster's vitals at 6:00 p.m. At 5:32 p.m., however, guard Josh Bright found Foster non-responsive and not breathing. Foster was immediately transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m.

Foster's estate, wife and four minor children brought federal suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Finchum, Timbrook, Dr. Maughon, First Med, the County, the County Commission, Sheriff Ronald "Hoss" Seals, jail supervisor Kent Hatcher and several guards. Plaintiffs sought $2 million in damages, alleging that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Foster's serious medical needs, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Defendants moved to dismiss.

The district court dismissed the deliberate indifference claims against Dr. Maughon. "Plaintiffs have not alleged any facts in their complaint to support the claim that Dr. Maughon acted with deliberate indifference," the court found. "They have not alleged that he was aware of the decedent's condition, that he had knowledge of defendant Timbrook's actions, or that he was at the prison facility during the relevant period in question."

The Court refused to dismiss the claims against First Med, Timbrook or Finchum, pursuant to Minneci v. Pollard, 132 S.Ct. 617 (2012). Minneci held that a federal prisoner cannot bring a Bivens action against private employees for inadequate medical care. Noting that Foster was not a federal prisoner and his action was brought under § 1983, not Bivens, the Court refused "to extend Minneci as requested by the First Med defendants." See: Paulk v. Sevier County, USDC No. 3:12-cv-89 (E.D. Tenn 2012).

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