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Alabama Prison Warden Lacks Authority to Make End-of-Life Decisions for Prisoners

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held on October 2, 2018 that an Alabama prison warden was not entitled to qualified immunity because his actions of requesting a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order and decision to remove a prisoner from life support did not fall within the scope of his discretionary authority.

St. Clair Correctional Facility prisoner Marquette F. Cummings, Jr. was stabbed in the eye with a shank on January 6, 2014. He was life-flighted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where he was found to be in “critical condition.”

Warden Carter Davenport included an instruction with Cummings’ paperwork that “‘no heroic measures’ would be taken to save his life.” That resulted in hospital staff entering a DNR order.

Sometime later, Davenport ordered that Cummings be removed from life support, which resulted in his death at the hospital on January 7, 2014.

Cummings’ estate filed suit against Davenport, the Alabama Department of Corrections and hospital staff. The district court dismissed all claims except a deliberate indifference claim against Davenport, and held he was not entitled to qualified immunity because he could not show that his actions were within his “discretionary authority” as a state official.

On an interlocutory appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed, stating, “The district court correctly looked to Alabama law to determine whether Davenport’s alleged actions were within his authority. And it correctly held that they were not.”

The appellate court noted the “Alabama Natural Death Act, Ala. Code § 22-8A-1 et seq., compels the conclusion that the office of a prison warden grants no authority to enter a do-not-resuscitate order or to order the withdrawal of artificial life support on behalf of a dying inmate.”

The Act provides for the instructions of a living will or for permanently incapacitated persons without a living will to have decisions made by a court-appointed guardian or a priority succession of relatives. “Nothing in the Act empowered Davenport, as a prison warden, to act as the surrogate of a dying inmate,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The Act is fatal to Davenport’s defense of qualified immunity.”

The Court also found that it lacked jurisdiction on interlocutory appeal to consider whether the estate’s amended complaint stated a claim for deliberate indifference. The district court’s order denying qualified immunity was affirmed, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Estate of Cummings v. Davenport, 906 F.3d 934 (11th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Estate of Cummings v. Davenport