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Kentucky Consolidated Local Government Entitled to Sovereign Immunity

The Supreme Court of Kentucky held that the Louisville Metro Government (LMG) and its employees are entitled to sovereign and qualified in a lawsuit alleging violation of Ky. Rev. Stat. 71.040.

The court’s December 17, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by the Estate of James Hatcher.

Hatcher was booked into the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections (LMDC) on February 21, 2008, to serve time for civil contempt after falling behind on child support. Less than 24 hours later, Hatcher died in an isolation cell.

The Estate attributed Hatcher’s death to an unwritten LMDC policy of preventing detainees from receiving habit-forming, lawfully prescribed narcotic or psychotropic drugs. The lawsuit described LMDC’s response to Hatcher’s deteriorating health as part of a continuing pattern of guards ignoring detainees’ health issues and showing deliberate indifference to their lives and rights.

The Jefferson Circuit Court granted the defendants’ summary judgment and the court of speaks affirmed. The Kentucky Supreme Court granted discretionary review. The major issue before the court was whether LMG and its employees were immune from suit against claims brought under KRS 71.040, and if suit is permitted whether monetary damages were available under KRS 446.070.

The court found that under KRS Chapter 67C, Louisville and Jefferson County merged and formed LMG into as a ‘‘consolidated local governments’’ in January 2003. Thus, ‘‘LMG enjoys the same absolute sovereign immunity afforded counties.’’ The court further found neither KRS 71.040, which requires jailers to treat prisoners humanely, nor KRS 446.070 waves immunity. As such, summary judgment was properly granted to LMG.

The court further found LMDC director Tom Campbell was not a jailer under Kentucky law because he was not ‘‘duly elected.’’ Campbell also was entitled to qualified immunity because there was no showing that he knew Hatcher was in custody or experienced medical distress.

Finally, the court rejected the Estate’s efforts to create new causes of action to allow it to recover monetary damages. It was noted that the Estate had other available remedies, such as civil rights causes of action that it abandoned during the pendency of the action. Additionally, Hatcher never informed guards or medical staff that he was taking any medication and said his only medical issue was a common cold.

The Estate ‘‘failed to show Hatcher had been prescribed as drug treatment of an identifiable medical condition, which, if timely provided, might have reasonably saved his life.” The grant of summary judgment was affirmed. See: A.H. v. Louisville Metro Gov't, Nos. 2018-SC-0359-DG, 2019-SC-0158-DG, 2020 Ky.

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Related legal case

A.H. v. Louisville Metro Gov't