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Eighth Circuit Holds Guards Not Liable for Disregarding Prisoner’s Stroke Symptoms

by Matt Clarke

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held on March 7, 2019 that prison guards could not be held liable for failing to act on a prisoner’s self-reported symptoms that medical staff had incorrectly diagnosed as the flu.

Barton Roberts was incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud in September 2015 when he began vomiting and experiencing headaches, dizziness and numbness, which started on a Friday night and continued or worsened throughout the weekend. During the weekend he neither ate nor left his cell and complained of severe illness to guards on multiple occasions, but received no medical attention.

On Monday, his symptoms subsided sufficiently that he could stand and leave his cell. He asked another prisoner to tell the guards that he was too ill to work, but failed to sign up for sick call or submit a written request for medical care. He spoke about his condition to three guards that day, two of whom told him that the medical department had been notified.

The next day, Roberts was taken to Washington County for a court appearance. There, he told an examining nurse about his symptoms. She instructed him to drink water and keep an eye on himself. 

Two days later he returned to the prison, where he informed the intake nurse about his illness. She took him to the duty physician, who kept talking to him “about the flu” and attributed his vertigo to an abscessed tooth, which was then surgically removed. That afternoon, Roberts experienced numbness in his face and was transported to a hospital where he was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke.

Roberts filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in March 2016, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. After his claims against other defendants were resolved, the district court granted summary judgment to the three guards Roberts spoke to on the Monday following his first symptoms. Roberts did not claim deliberate indifference to the diagnosis and treatment of the stroke he suffered after the tooth removal. Rather, with the support of an expert witness, he claimed that he had suffered a stroke the preceding Friday and the guards were deliberately indifferent to his need for medical attention following that earlier stroke. 

None of the three guards had worked during the weekend, so the first they heard of Roberts’ symptoms was on the following Monday. The district court found they could not be held liable for failing to obtain emergency medical treatment for Roberts because he could not expect a guard to recognize stroke symptoms when a medical professional had missed those same symptoms.

The Eighth Circuit agreed on appeal, holding that a guard “who disregards visible and self-reported symptoms that medical professionals believe to be consistent with the flu may be negligent, but he is not deliberately indifferent to an obvious need for medical attention.” The appellate court concluded that “the operative principle is that lay corrections officers cannot be expected to recognize a serious medical need when a trained health care professional is unable to do so in the same circumstances.” Therefore, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Roberts v. Kopel, 917 F.3d 1039 (8th Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

Roberts v. Kopel