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Fifth Circuit Upholds $2.85 Million Award in Suit over Jail Prisoner’s Death

by Matt Clarke

On November 29, 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury award of $1.5 million for pain and suffering and $917,000 for wrongful death in a lawsuit brought by survivors of a prisoner who died after being held for four days in an observation cell at a jail in Orange County, Texas. Attorney fees brought the total award to $2.85 million.

Robert Montano was arrested for public intoxication. A judge set his bond at $200 and ordered him released after 72 business hours if charges had not been filed or his bond posted. He was taken to jail where the arresting officer told the book-in officer that Montano was believed to be under the influence of bath salts – a drug designed to have effects similar to cocaine or methamphetamine. Bath salts intoxication is a serious condition with symptoms that include high blood pressure, hypothermia, paranoia and sometimes death.

Although there was no evidence Montano was, in fact, using bath salts, he was treated as if that allegation were true. Because he was incoherent, the book-in process was not completed. Instead he was placed in a glass-walled observation cell known as the “bubble,” which had no sink, toilet or toilet paper. Four-and-a-half days later, Montano was discovered dead in the bubble, which was littered with uneaten food and trash. During his stay at the jail, his vital signs were checked one time at most; no nurse entered the bubble and no physician came to the jail while Montano was housed in the observation cell.

Jail staff failed to complete a mandatory suicide assessment form and failed to run a Continuity of Care database query, as required by state jail standards. Had they done so, they would have discovered that Montano previously had been treated for mental illness. Apparently, they did not know he had been booked into the jail a month earlier for suspected bath salts intoxication, but had calmed down a few hours after he was placed in a restraint chair.

Montano’s family filed a federal civil rights suit on the basis of unconstitutional conditions of confinement. During trial, the testimony of jail employees, nurses and other prisoners revealed that, whereas the jail had a written policy of placing intoxicated people into the bubble for four to eight hours, the actual practice was to leave them there “as long as necessary” until they detoxified.

LVNs working at the jail gave inconsistent testimony, as did the sheriff. The county tried to blame the nurses – calling the incident a one-time act of medical negligence. Prisoners said Montano had “hollered” and asked for help, but was ignored by jailers and nursing staff. Further, an LVN noticed purpling on Montano, a sign of renal failure and immanent death, but did not summon an ambulance.

The jury found for Montano’s family and awarded them $1.5 million for his pain and suffering and $917,000 for his wrongful death. Additionally, the judge awarded $440,116.01 in attorney fees. However, the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) on the wrongful death award was granted, with the court stating there was insufficient evidence the jail’s policy had caused Montano’s death. Both parties appealed.

The Fifth Circuit upheld the award for pain and suffering and reversed the district court’s order granting JMOL on the wrongful death claim, reinstating the $917,000 jury award. The Court of Appeals noted that the county had denied Montano medical care “with the expectation that he would heal himself,” disregarding state standards and ignoring the fact he was neither eating nor drinking while held in the bubble.

In its closing arguments at trial, the county had admitted that Montano died of “medical negligence” in the jail’s custody, and that his death was on the county’s hands. That admission was binding, even if it was part of an argument intended to shift blame to the nurses. See: Montano v. Orange County, Texas, 842 F.3d 865 (5th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Montano v. Orange County, Texas