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Seventh Circuit Finds Jail Guard May Be Liable for Delayed Response to Illinois Detainee’s Fatal Heart Attack

by Douglas Ankney

On July 20, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a suit alleging delayed medical care caused the death of Eugene Washington while he was held in pretrial detention at Illinois’ Winnebago County Jail (WJC).

Washington’s cellmate, Lamar Simmons, awoke in October 2019 to the sound of Washington gasping for breath. Unable to awaken him, Simmons pressed the cell’s intercom call button at 4:37 a.m. to report the emergency to guard Jeff Valentine. Guards are trained to answer the calls as soon as possible. But Valentine did not answer for over one minute.

Simmons later testified that he told Valentine: “My cellie can’t breathe”—to which he said the guard replied that the intercom was reserved for emergencies and ended the call. However, Valentine testified that he thought Simmons was complaining about a plumbing issue.

Still unable to wake Washington, whose gasps for breath were slowing, Simmons pressed the call-button again at 4:47 a.m. Valentine did not answer for about 90 seconds. He later testified that this time he understood Simmons was reporting an emergency—as did another guard by then also at the desk. The two raced to Washington’s cell, arriving at 4:50 a.m. But according to Simmons, Washington had taken his last breath shortly before they got there.

The guards found Washington had no pulse and began CPR. A nurse arrived with a defibrillator at 4:52 a.m. But Washington remained unresponsive as the guards continued to administer CPR and give intermittent electrical shocks. Emergency medical technicians arrived and transported Washington to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy performed by Dr. Mark Peters revealed that he died from cardiac arrhythmia caused by sleep apnea.

With the aid of attorney Nicolette A. Ward from Swanson, Martin and Bell in Chicago, Bettye Jackson, administrator of Washington’s estate, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing Valentine of an unconstitutional delay in obtaining treatment that resulted in Washington’s death. Ward picked up co-counsel from Chicago attorneys with Romanucci & Blandin, LLC before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois determined that Jackson “had not presented sufficient evidence to show causation” and granted Valentine’s motion for summary judgment. Jackson appealed.


The Seventh Circuit began by observing that Jackson’s claim was “based on the roughly thirteen minutes that elapsed between Simmons’s first call to Valentine and the arrival of jail personnel at the cell.” As such, Jackson needed to show the delay itself “caused some degree of harm,” as held in Williams v. Liefer, 491 F.3d 710 (7th Cir. 2007), which said: “No matter the precise harm, the plaintiff needs to offer ‘verifying medical evidence’ to establish a causal connection to the claimed delay.” Both expert and non-expert evidence count toward this requirement, the Court added, citing Miranda v. County of Lake, 900 F.3d 335 (7th Cir. 2018); and Ortiz v. City of Chicago, 656 F.3d 523 (7th Cir. 2011).

In the instant case, the evidence indicated Washington was alive during the delay. Simmons testified that “Washington was gasping for air from the time Simmons awoke until around the time the officers reached the cell,” the Court noted. A guard trained to use the defibrillator testified that the device recommends a shock only when electrical activity is detected in the patient’s heart. In Dr. Peters’ deposition, he testified that Washington had congestion in his lungs and explained that “the only time you don’t see lung congestion is if a person pretty much dies instantly.” This was sufficient at the moment to refute Valentine’s claim that Washington was dead long before the guards arrived at his cell.

“Given the evidence that Washington was alive for several minutes following Simmons’s first call,” the Court concluded, “Dr. Peters’ testimony indicating that death occurred over a course of minutes, and not instantaneously, supports Jackson’s claim that the delay harmed Washington.” Consequently, Jackson “ha[d] presented enough evidence at summary judgment to support her claim that the delay diminished Washington’s chances of survival.”

Accordingly, the district court’s holding was reversed. A request for rehearing before the entire Seventh Circuit en banc was denied on August 18, 2023. At the Court, Jackson had additional representation from attorneys Madeline Meth from Boston University and Brian Wolfman from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. See: Jackson v. Sheriff of Winnebago Cnty., 74 F.4th 496 (7th Cir. 2023); and 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 21812 (7th Cir.).

The case has now returned to the district court, where trial is set for April 2024. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Jackson v. Sheriff of Winnebago Cnty., USDC (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:20-cv-50414.  

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Related legal case

Jackson v. Sheriff of Winnebago Cnty.