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Lawsuit Over Denial of Medical Treatment for Painful Erection Causing Impotence in Oklahoma County Jail Reinstated by Tenth Circuit

by Matt Clarke

On January 19, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that a county sheriff and three jail guards were not entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity in a lawsuit brought by a former jail prisoner who suffered permanent impotence after being denied medical treatment for a persistent, painful erection that lasted three days

Dustin Lance was incarcerated at the Pittsburg County jail in McAlester, Oklahoma when he took a pill he got from another prisoner. He awoke the next morning with an erection that would not subside, a medical condition known as priapism. He reported this via intercom to guard Edward Morgan, who said he would put Lance in lockdown for taking the pill, but did nothing. Over the next three days, he made increasingly urgent requests for medical care to other guards, including Mike Smead, Dakota Morgan, and Daniel Harper. He even showed Smead his painfully engorged penis two days after he took the pill, but Smead did not mention it to the jail’s nurse until the next day.

When the nurse asked him why he did not report the priapism sooner, Smead told her, “I thought he was just playing around.”

Lance was in obvious pain, but none of the guards took him seriously.

When the nurse saw his condition, she immediately asked that he be transferred to a local hospital. He was given medication at the hospital, but it did not help. The emergency physician told guards to take Lance to another hospital about 90 miles away that had a urologist on duty.

Instead of taking Lance to the second hospital, the guards returned him to the jail, further delaying his treatment. The jail obtained a judicial order for his release on his own recognizance. After his release, Lance was taken to the other hospital where a urologist operated, but could not prevent permanent injuries, including impotence that will likely be lifelong.

Lance filed a federal civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging the inadequately-trained guards were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and the sheriff’s policy to release prisoners rather than take them to an out-of-town hospital harmfully delayed his medical treatment. The court granted defendants summary judgment.

Lance appealed, aided by attorneys Megha Ram and Daniel M. Shapiro of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Centers in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, respectively, and Tulsa attorneys J. Spencer Bryan and Steven J. Terrill of Bryan & Terrill.

The Tenth Circuit found that Edward Morgan was entitled to summary judgment because Lance had not given him enough information to know that a serious medical situation was occurring.

However, the other named guards were not entitled to summary judgment as Lance had adequately informed them about his serious medical condition and they ignored it or even made fun of it. Pittsburg County Sheriff Chris Morris was also not entitled to qualified immunity because Lance’s claims of inadequate training was supported by the guards’ own testimony that they received no training on how to recognize a medical emergency and Lance testified that the pain had intensified during the six hour period while he awaited release, per a former sheriff’s policy, so he could go to a hospital. Therefore, the summary judgment was affirmed with respect to Edward Morgan and reversed with respect to the sheriff and other named jailers. See: Lance v. Morris, 985 F.3d 787 (10th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Lance v. Morris