Eleventh Circuit Holds No Qualified Immunity on Deliberate Indifference in Heat Exhaustion Case
by David M. Reutter
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a Georgia Sheriff’s Deputy employed excessive force by detaining a pretrial detainee “in a hot, unventilated, and unair-conditioned transport van for approximately two hours” and was deliberately indifferent to the detainee’s serious medical needs. The court concluded the deputy was entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claim but not on the deliberate indifference claim.
The court’s August 11, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Nilesh S. Patel. He appealed from the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lanier County Sheriff’s Deputy James Smith. He was tasked with transporting Patel from the Cook County Jail, where he was being held due to overcrowding, to the Lanier County Courthouse to be processed for release on bond.
Smith stopped at the Lowndes County Jail to pick up Brittney Grant, another pretrial detainee who was being taken to Lanier County to be released on bond. Upon arrival, Smith parked in the enclosed sally port and left Patel in van while he went to retrieve Grant. The conditions that day were “very hot” within the sally port and the van, with the outdoor temperature at around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Patel was left in the van for almost an hour without a fan or the air-conditioning running. When Smith returned to the van with Grant, he “banged on the window” several times, asking if Patel was “okay in there.” He received no reply and opened the van doors to find Patel lying unconscious on the floor, sweating, and hyperventilating.
Smith applied a “sternum rub” to rouse Patel, who said he passed out from the heat and asked for some water. Smith said he would get some water on the way back to Lanier County, but he failed to fulfill that promise. Grant testified that not much air circulated in the back of the van and that during the drive to Lanier County, Patel again fell to the floor of the van. He “remained there—unconscious, hyperventilating, and with mucus and saliva running from his mouth and nose,” until Smith roused him upon arrival at Lanier County. By that time, Patel had been in the van almost two hours.
Once helped out of the van, Patel immediately got a drink from a water fountain. In the holding area, he visibly showed signs of distress. When he asked for an ambulance, a guard asked why and stated, “You’re being released.” Paramedics arrived and transported Patel to a hospital where he was diagnosed with heat exhaustion, heat syncope, and panic attack.
Patel sued Smith and other defendants, who were voluntarily dismissed. The district court granted Smith’s motion for summary judgment, concluding Smith had not violated the constitution and that he was entitled to official immunity on Patel’s state law claim.
The Eleventh Circuit found the district court applied an incorrect standard on the excessive force claim. How such claims are assessed for pretrial detainees changed with the ruling in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015). The Kingsley court abandoned the “shocks the conscious” standard under the Eighth Amendment for a pretrial detainee’s excessive use of force claim. It adopted the Fourteenth Amendment rule of “objective reasonableness.”
The Kingsley court listed six non-exclusive factors to apply that rule: “(1) the reasonableness between the need for the use of force; (2) the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; (3) any effort made by the officer to temper or limit the amount of force; (4) the severity of the security problem at issue; (5) the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and (6) whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.”
After assessing those factors in Patel’s case, the Eleventh Circuit found that excessive force was used upon him by leaving him in the hot van for two hours. It, however, found that right was not clearly established and that Smith was entitled to qualified immunity.
The court further found that Smith exhibited deliberate indifference by failing to render aid or obtain medical care for Patel. That Smith is a trained first responder and failed to act in the face of an unconscious detainee were key factors. The court said it was clearly established that under such circumstances Smith had a duty to act, so he was denied qualified immunity on that claim.
Finally, the court found error in dismissing the state law claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It said there was a jury question of whether Smith had a ministerial duty in a written policy to not leave Patel “unattended during transport.”
The district court’s order was affirmed in part and vacated in part. See: Patel v. Lanier County. Ga., 969 F.3d 1173 (11th Cir. 2020).