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Wisconsin Prisoner In Vegetative State After Suicide Attempt Wins New Trial on Jury Instruction Error

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a jury’s judgment in a civil rights action alleging guards at Wisconsin’s Madison County Jail (MCJ) were deliberately indifferent to a detainee's medical care. The court found the jury was improperly instructed to determine if the defendants’ actions were subjectively reasonable.

The court’s August 14, 2020 opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Reginald Pittman. It was the third time the case was before the court. The first time, the court reversed summary judgment for defendants. The second time, the court reversed after a 2015 trial that resulted in a verdict for defendants, holding a video interview of another detainee was improperly excluded.

The current appeal came after a 2018 trial that again resulted in a verdict for the defendants. The case concerned the 2007 attempted suicide of Pittman at MCJ, which left him in a vegetative state. It was alleged that Sgt. Randy Eaton and guard Matthew Warner violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to provide Pittman with medical care.

Prior to his attempted suicide, Pittman left a note stating the guards were “fucking” with him and would not give him access to “crisis” counseling. Fellow detainee Bradley Banovz substantiated that claim in a video interview. Banovz said the guards promised Pittman they would schedule him for counseling, but they never did.

Pittman argued on the third appeal that rather than have the jury instructed to determine whether the defendants acted in an objectively reasonable manner, the instruction required the jury to ascertain the defendants’ subjective intent. He asserted the instruction was inconsistent with the holding in Miranda v. County of Lake, 900 F.3d 335 (7th Cir. 2018).

The Miranda court held that a detainee’s Fourteenth Amendment due process claim under the deliberate indifference standard “requires a showing that the defendant had a ‘sufficiently culpable state of mind’ and asks whether the official believed there was a significant risk of harm.”

The court rejected Pittman’s argument that it was error for the jury to be instructed to decide whether the defendants “were aware of … or strongly suspected facts showing” a strong likelihood that Pittman would harm himself. This instruction, the court said, was proper because if they “were aware” they acted “purposely” or “knowingly.” On the other hand, if they were not aware and just “strongly suspected” their actions would lead to damaging results, they would have only acted “recklessly.”

The court, however, found reversible error in the instruction that asked the jury to determine if the defendants “consciously failed to take reasonable measures to prevent [Pittman] from harming himself.” The court concluded “the word ‘consciously’ rendered the jury instruction impermissibly subjective,” which is a misstatement of the law. Under Miranda, the defendants “are liable if their actions (or lack thereof) were objectively unreasonable.

The Seventh Circuit found the error “confused or mislead” the jury. It determined the evidence at the trial could support a jury finding that the defendants were objectively unreasonable. The judgment was reversed and a new trial was ordered. See: Pittman ex. rel. Hamilton v. Cnty. of Madison, 746 F.3d 766 (7th Cir. 2020). 

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Related legal case

Pittman ex. rel. Hamilton v. Cnty. of Madison,