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Oops! Accidental Dismissal of Case Over Alabama Jail Detainee’s Death Not Forgiven by Eleventh Circuit

by Jenifer Lockwood

Sticking with the adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on August 20, 2021, that it could not grant relief to a plaintiff who unintentionally dismissed jail guards from a suit over the allegedly wrongful death of an Alabama detainee.

The case was filed by the estate of Jeffery West, a pretrial detainee released from the Escambia County Jail after a 15-day stay following his arrest for allegedly damaging a telephone junction box. While incarcerated, he developed a staph infection that allegedly went untreated. Once out of the jail on July 13, 2015, West immediately sought medical attention from a hospital in nearby Pensacola, Florida. Less than two weeks later, on July 31, 2015, he died in the hospital’s critical care unit. An autopsy listed his cause of death as complications from bronchopneumonia and pulmonary alveolar injury.

The family of the deceased man filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of Alabama in June 2017 against the county, Sheriff Grover Smith, and numerous “Doe” jail and medical personnel, accusing them of deliberate indifference to West’s serious medical need, in violation of his rights under federal and state law.

In July 2017, Defendants moved to dismiss the case, and a magistrate judge recommended that their motion be granted the following September. But that same month, the Eleventh Circuit recalled, “instead of filing the Estate’s objections to the [magistrate’s] report and … recommendation, and before the … district court could rule on the pending motions to dismiss, the parties filed a ‘Stipulation of Dismissal,’” terminating “all claims brought by [the Estate] against Sheriff Grover Smith and Escambia County, without prejudice, the parties to bear their own costs.”

The following month, when the estate moved to reopen the case, arguing it had never dismissed the Doe defendants, the district court said it had lost jurisdiction with the stipulated dismissal under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 41(a)(1). But under FRCP 609(a), it decided “to correct a clerical mistake or a mistake arising from oversight or omission” and reopened the matter in November 2017. The estate then filed an amended complaint giving names to the previous Doe defendants. Defendants moved for summary judgment under 41(a)(1), arguing that the amended complaint could not relate back to the complaint that was dismissed and so was time-barred. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The estate appealed.

Taking up the case then, the Eleventh Circuit pointed to its decision in Pilot Freight Carriers, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 506 F.2d 914 (5th Cir. 1975), which said that “Rule 41(a)(1) means … precisely what it says,” and a dismissal under it disposes of “the entire action, not just some of the plaintiff's claims.”

“At the time the stipulation of dismissal was filed,” the Court continued, “the fictitious defendants were still just that — fictitious. Thus, they had not yet been named or served and, accordingly, had not made an appearance … As Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) expressly provides, a stipulation of dismissal ‘signed by all parties who … have appeared’ dismisses the action.” Moreover, the district court erred in reopening the case under Rule 60(a) because that is “not available to it as a jurisdictional lifeline.”

Thus the district court’s order reopening the case was vacated, leaving all of the estate’s claims dismissed. The estate was represented by attorneys William Franklin Cash, III, of Levin Papantonio Rafferty in Pensacola, Ralph Edward Massey, Jr., of Clay Massey & Associates, PC, in Mobile, and James Alistair McKenzie, of the McKenzie Law Firm, PA, in Pensacola. See: Estate of W. v. Smith, 9 F.4th 1361 (11th Cir. 2021).

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Related legal cases

West v. Smith

Estate of W. v. Smith