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Kentucky Consolidated Local Government Entitled to Sovereign Immunity

The court’s December 17, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by the Estate of James Hatcher. He 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 Kentuckian 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 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’s director, Tom Campbell, was not a jailer under Kentucky law because he was not “duly elected.” Campbell was also entitled to qualified immunity because there was no showing he knew Hatcher was in custody or experienced medical distress.

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Related legal case

A.H. v. Louisville Metro Government