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Eighth Circuit Vacates Summary Judgment Order in Detainee’s Wrongful Death Suit

In March 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a summary judgment order in favor of jail officials on claims stemming from a detainee’s death.

On February 23, 2012, Jerome Harrell reported to the jail in Stearns County, Minnesota on outstanding traffic warrants. Booking staff noted that he had “special needs” because he appeared high.

Harrell said he “needed to come clean” about Tupac Shakur’s murder and made seemingly bizarre comments about an unsolved local shooting. Nevertheless, detectives interviewed him at the jail between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m., and Harrell “appeared anxious” after the interview.

When jail guards Mary Armstrong and Patrick Culloton started their 11 p.m. shift, they were told that Harrell seemed high and had exhibited strange behavior. They were required to conduct well-being checks (WBCs) every 30 minutes; during their first check, Armstrong and Culloton observed he was behaving oddly. Throughout the night Harrell made “loud howling and screaming vocals” and was banging on his cell door. Other prisoners asked guards to move or silence him.

Neither Armstrong nor Culloton spoke to Harrell or entered his cell, and although they observed his odd behavior during the WBCs, they did not request medical assistance.

When Armstrong and Culloton were relieved at 7 a.m., they reported Harrell’s behavior to staff on the day shift. Guard Mark Hill observed Harrell completely naked with a wet sheet draped over his head as he screamed, made “loud howling noises” and pounded on the door. Supervising officer Pam Gacke asked jail medical staff to evaluate him.

Four guards then entered Harrell’s cell because medical staff requested that he be secured in a restraint chair. During the videotaped cell extraction, Harrell refused to comply with orders, rushed the guards, actively resisted and bit one of the jailers. Harrell was knocked to the floor and several guards held him down while others attempted to restrain his wrists and ankles. He was shot twice with a Taser in drive stun mode.

Within five minutes of guards entering the cell, Harrell was unresponsive. He was moved to a lower level of the jail where staff said they tried to revive him until an ambulance arrived. Harrell was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 10:00 a.m. The autopsy found no significant injury or trauma; the immediate cause of death was listed as “sudden unexpected death during restraint.” Yet the report noted that “a large pool of blood” on the cell floor came “from a laceration on [his] head.”

Harrell’s estate filed suit in federal court, alleging that guards were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and had used excessive force against him. The estate also asserted several state law claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all the federal claims then dismissed the state law claims without prejudice.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit vacated summary judgment on the estate’s claim that Armstrong and Culloton were deliberately indifferent to Harrell’s serious medical needs during their shift. “They allowed him to scream, howl, and bang against his cell door for eight hours without attempting to talk to him or seek medical intervention,” the appellate court wrote. “From this evidence a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Harrell was suffering from an obvious medical need and that the failure to talk with Harrell or seek medical treatment for him was a clearly inadequate response that supports an inference of deliberate indifference.... A reasonable factfinder could therefore conclude that the defendants violated Harrell’s constitutional rights.”

The Court of Appeals also reversed the grant of summary judgment based on qualified immunity because a pretrial detainee’s right to emergency medical care had already been clearly established in that circuit. Finally, the Court reversed the dismissal of Harrell’s failure to train and state law claims.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the estate’s excessive force claims, finding that under the totality of the circumstances, “none of the defendants’ actions, either singly or in combination, amounted to an objectively unreasonable application of force.”

The three-judge panel was sharply divided. One appellate judge agreed with the decision affirming summary judgment on the excessive force claim but dissented as to the reversal of the other claims. Another judge agreed with reversal on the deliberate indifference claims but disagreed with the excessive force decision. The case remains pending on remand, with a trial scheduled for February 8, 2018. See: Ryan v. Armstrong, 850 F.3d 419 (8th Cir. 2017), rehearing denied, rehearing en banc denied. 

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Related legal case

Ryan v. Armstrong