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Eighth Circuit Upholds $1.25 Million Jury Award for Missouri Prisoner’s Death

by Matt Clarke

On June 22, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury award of more than $1.25 million in a lawsuit over a Missouri prisoner’s death.

Danial Letterman was held at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in a secured, padded room under suicide watch when, just before midnight on November 17, 2011, he twice fell in his cell. During the second fall, Letterman hit his head on the cell’s doorjamb hard enough to generate a loud noise that caused guard Steven Lammers to investigate. Lammers saw Letterman on the floor and asked if he required medical assistance. Letterman waved a hand but did not respond verbally or otherwise move. Lammers did not summon help and noted in the observation log that Letterman was “good.”

Letterman remained conscious between 10 and 20 minutes, but did not move. At 7:30 a.m., Lammers told relief guard Nooreen Gastineau that Letterman had not moved all night since he fell. A physician came that morning to speak to Letterman, who grunted and moved a foot in response. About 9:00 a.m., medical personnel told Gastineau to wake Letterman. She kicked the cell door, yelled at him and splashed water on his face. Letterman only moved his head slightly and fluttered his eyelids.

Gastineau reported this to Sgt. Jerry Farnsworth, stating that Letterman’s cell door needed to be opened so medical personnel could check his vital signs. Farnsworth replied that he could not spare another guard to access the cell. Gastineau also asked Lt. Bryan Earls to open the cell, but he told her to “let sleeping dogs lie.”

Around 4:00 p.m., a guard team finally opened the cell door and a nurse determined that Letterman required immediate medical treatment. He was taken to a hospital where he died of subdural bleeding caused by head trauma.

Letterman’s parents filed a federal lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the guards had violated their son’s civil rights. A jury found in their favor, awarding them $6,793.29 for denial of medical care, $100,000 for pain and suffering, $150,000 for the constitutional violation and $1,000,000 for wrongful death. The district court subsequently awarded attorney fees of $273,930 plus $64,894.41 in costs.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit rejected the defendants’ argument that Letterman did not experience much pain and suffering because he was unconscious most of the time. The appellate court noted that Letterman showed signs of partial consciousness during the hours following the second fall in his cell. It also rejected the defendants’ claims of insufficient evidence, improper exclusion of evidence and official immunity. The jury award was affirmed, and a satisfaction of judgment – indicating the award and fees had been paid – was filed on September 11, 2017. See: Letterman v. Does, 859 F.3d 1120 (8th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Letterman v. Does