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Eighth Circuit: Arkansas Detainee Suffering Fatal Seizure Might Have Been Faking or Might Have Gotten Better

by David M. Reutter

In a maddening decision issued on January 31, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the denial of qualified immunity (QI) to four guards from Arkansas’s Benton County Detention Center (BCDC), in a lawsuit accusing them of deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of a pretrial detainee who died from a methamphetamine overdose.

Amos Reece was arrested after reportedly attempting to break into vehicles in a hospital parking lot. After he was booked into BCDC, his condition deteriorated, and he was taken to a nearby hospital. There he died. An autopsy report concluded that Reece likely swallowed a small plastic bag of methamphetamine – he never told anyone – which then opened in his stomach, “leading to acute methamphetamine toxicity and his subsequent death.”

Reece’s estate sued. Defendants moved for summary judgment on QI grounds. When the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas denied the motion, the Defendant guards filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Eighth Circuit first addressed the claim of the booking guard, Spencer Williams. There was a dispute as to whether he was informed by the arresting officer that Reece was under the influence of methamphetamine. But Williams was told that Reece exhibited signs of a seizure in the patrol car. The district court said that should’ve put any reasonable person on alert and denied the guard QI. But the Eighth Circuit disagreed.

Reece could have been faking a seizure, the Court offered. Or the arresting officer might have been unsure about what he saw. Or maybe whatever medical event Reece experienced in the patrol car resolved itself by time he arrived at BCDC. Confronted with so many possibilities that Reece wasn’t dying, the guard apparently couldn’t be expected to act on the chance that he wouldn’t survive without immediate help.

Returning to the remaining defendant guards, D. McCain, G. Hobelmann, and James Smith, the Court acknowledged what all of them did: Reece’s “bizarre” behavior and excessive sweating and thirst. But they were justified in ignoring what they saw because medical staffers were on the scene by the time they got involved.

The estate maintained “that it was unreasonable to rely on the nurse’s assessment because Amos was so obviously impaired and the examination was so manifestly incomplete,” the Court noted. But it said, “[W]e do not believe that the defendants were in a position to question the sufficiency of the nurse’s assessment or demand that she obtain more information from Amos so that she could assess him better.”

Thus, finding nothing in the record to indicate the guard Defendants acted with deliberate indifference, the Court said they were entitled to QI, and that part of the district court’s order was reversed. See: Reece v. Hale, 58 F.4th 1027 (8th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where claims were dismissed against all Defendants except nurse Shawna Stephens. An attempt to settle with her was unsuccessful on May 16, 2023. Two days later, trial was set for August 29, 2023, and PLN will update developments as they are available. The estate is represented in its suit by attorneys with Smolen Law PLLC in Tulsa, as well as Muscogee attorney Janet B. Hudson. See: Reece v. Stephens, USDC (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 5:20-cv-05122.

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Related legal case

Reece v. Hale