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Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Jail Where Three Detainees Died

by Christopher Zoukis

In an unpublished June 7, 2018 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially reversed a district court’s ruling that Cowlitz County, Washington was entitled to summary judgment in a case that alleged county jail officials violated the civil rights of three detainees who died within a nine-month period.

The estates of Stephanie Deal, Jenny Lynn Borelis and Daniel D. Bush filed claims against Cowlitz County and Corrections Director Marin Fox Hight in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They argued the policies and customs at the jail posed a substantial risk of serious harm, which resulted in the deaths of the three detainees.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, citing a failure by the plaintiffs to present evidence to support their claims. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit partially reversed that order. In doing so, it cited a recent decision that compelled that result – Gordon v. County of Orange, 888 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2018) [PLN, Oct. 2018, p.48].

According to the appellate court, Gordon changed the individual liability standard for medical-needs claims involving a pretrial detainee. Because it was now possible that “reckless disregard” could violate a prisoner’s rights under § 1983, remand was necessary; this was the case despite the fact that Gordon only addressed individual liability, as opposed to governmental liability.

“Defendants are correct that Gordon changed only the individual liability standard for § 1983 medical-needs claims brought by pretrial detainees,” the Ninth Circuit wrote. “But Gordon still bears on this case because, under its newly-announced standard for individual liability, Borelis and Deal may be able to show that one or more individuals violated their rights by exhibiting ‘reckless disregard’ for their well-being ... and that those violations are attributable to Defendants.”

The case remains pending on remand. See: Crowell v. Cowlitz County, 726 Fed. Appx. 593 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Crowell v. Cowlitz County