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Seventh Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment to Defendants in Prisoner’s Wrongful Death Case

by Lonnie Burton

On October 17, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the warden and a private health care provider in a case where a prisoner suffered an asthma attack and later died. The prisoner’s estate alleged that his death occurred because the cell where he was housed did not have an emergency call button and the facility lacked a medical director, among other claims.

On May 26, 2010, prisoner Marvin T. McDonald was housed in a segregation unit at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center (PCC) in Illinois. At about 5:00 p.m. that day, he began to suffer an asthma attack. McDonald, however, did not receive any treatment until 12:15 a.m., in part because there were no emergency call buttons in the segregation cells, forcing his cellmate to bang on the door to get the guards’ attention.

Once in the health care unit – run by private contractor Wexford Health Sources – there was no on-call doctor. Although the unit was supposed to be overseen by a permanent medical director, that post had been vacant for over a year. After a nurse contacted a doctor by phone, the doctor ordered McDonald transported to a local hospital, where he died at 6:09 a.m.

McDonald’s estate sued PCC Warden Randy Davis, Wexford and several guards and medical personnel, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The complaint raised claims related to the lack of a medical director, no emergency call buttons in segregation cells, the failure of guards to monitor the cells and inadequate staff training.

A magistrate judge granted summary judgment to the warden and Wexford, while the remaining claims went to trial. A jury found in favor of the defendants. After a motion for a new trial was denied, McDonald’s estate appealed, focusing on the grant of summary judgment to Wexford and Warden Davis.

Affirming the district court, the Seventh Circuit was unpersuaded that the lack of an emergency call button contributed to McDonald’s death. “Nothing in the record suggests that Warden Davis had actual knowledge of specific facts that would support an inference that the absence of emergency call buttons created a substantial risk of harm,” the appellate court wrote. All other housing units at PCC are equipped with emergency call buttons.

The Court of Appeals also found that Wexford was similarly not liable because there was no evidence that “the failure to have a permanent medical director in place” put prisoners at a substantial risk of harm. The Court held the allegation that McDonald’s death would not have occurred had Wexford employed a medical director “rests entirely on speculation and was rightly rejected.”

Finally, the Seventh Circuit rejected several claims related to the trial itself, including the district court’s denial of a late motion to amend the complaint, a motion for discovery sanctions and a motion for a new trial. The appellate court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the district court in all respects. See: Chatham v. Davis, 839 F.3d 679 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Chatham v. Davis