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Seventh Circuit Reversal: Guards Immune from Prosecution in Wrongful Death Claim

Daniel Martin was booked into the Clay County, Indiana, jail on December 13, 2013, for drunk diving. His intake was performed by officers Landon Herbert and Zachary Overton. The two logged a 0.16 percent blood-alcohol content on Martin, and stated that he was coherent and without great impairment of coordination. Martin was placed in a two-man cell on the top bunk where video showed he fell while climbing down, striking his head on a table mounted on the opposite wall. He damaged his spinal cord and ultimately died from the injuries five months later.

Martin's estate sued on his behalf, stating that Herbert and Overton failed to provide adequate medical care. The suit alleged that no person with Martin's level of intoxication should have been assigned to a cell where the only open bunk was on top. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment citing qualified immunity. The district court ruled that the facts surrounding the immunity claim were under dispute and therefore must be litigated.

On interlocutory appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that even judged in the most favorable light of the plaintiff, Herbert and Overton could not have been expected to know that assigning an intoxicated person in Martin's condition to a top bunk was patently unreasonable. The constitutional standard protected a defendant's reasonable factual mistake. Video showed Martin getting around under his own capacity and capably and voluntarily climbing onto the top bunk on his own accord.

The appeals court reversed the ruling of the district court and remanded the case for an entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

See: Lovett v. Herbert _____ F.3d _____ (7th Cir., 2018)

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Related legal case

Lovett v. Herbert