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Eighth Circuit Affirms $800,000 Award After Arkansas Jail Detainee’s Fatal Appendix Rupture

by Matthew Clarke

On August 24, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed an $800,000 jury award against a contract doctor at an Arkansas jail, in a suit brought on behalf of a detainee who died of sepsis after her appendix ruptured while incarcerated.

Linda S. Warner, 59, was booked into the Faulkner County Jail in July 2017 for allegedly violating a protection order. The jail’s contract physician, Dr. Garry Stewart, wrote prescriptions to treat her diabetes, incontinence and rash. But Warner did not complain of abdominal pain to Stewart, and he did not examine her because he considered her uncooperative, prescribing Prozac to address her behavior. He also discussed her condition with her family physician.

Warner then suffered a ruptured appendix and died of sepsis in November 2017. On behalf of her estate, administrator Christine Turner filed a civil rights action in federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, with pendent state tort claims against the county and its jail officials, as well as medical personnel, including Stewart. All claims except those against Stewart were settled for $500,000.

When the medical malpractice claim against Stewart went to trial, he moved for judgment as a matter of law. The district court granted the motion in part, finding insufficient evidence to support punitive damages. The jury then considered compensatory damages and awarded $1.3 million to Plaintiff; however, the district court gave Stewart a $500,000 credit for the settlement, reducing the award to $800,000. Both parties filed appeals.

At the outset, the Eighth Circuit said there was no issue left for appellate review about the verdict amount; pointing to Unitherm Food Sys. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc., 546 U.S. 394 (2006), it said that its hands were tied because Stewart had failed to renew his motion for a directed verdict post-judgment, as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b)

As for punitive damages, the Court said that Stewart could not be liable since the evidence “does not ‘compel a conclusion … with reasonable certainty’ that Stewart acted with malice or reckless disregard of the consequences of his conduct such that malice could be inferred,” quoting D’Arbonne Constr. Co. v. Foster, 123 S.W.3d 894 (Ark. 2003). Therefore, the district court properly granted judgment as a matter of law on that issue.

The Court also found no error in the lower court’s instruction to Plaintiff’s expert witness to refrain from using legal terms like “reckless” and “negligent” to describe Stewart’s conduct.

Finally, the Court found no error in crediting Stewart with $500,000 from the settlement. In fact, such crediting between joint tortfeasors is required by Arkansas’s Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, Ark. Code Ann. § 16-61-204(c), the Court noted. The other defendants also met the definition of joint tortfeasors under § 16-61-201(1). Applying Applegate v. Riggall, 318 S.W.2d 596 (Ark. 1958), the Court concluded that the complained-of injury was the same underlying claims against all defendants, regardless of whether they were medical malpractice claims, like those against Stewart, or constitutional violations, such as those alleged against the other defendants. Moreover, because the injury was the same, crediting was required.

The district court’s judgment was thus affirmed. Plaintiff was represented by Little Rock attorneys Jessica Ann Virden Mallet and Edward Zellmer of Peter Miller Law Offices, along with Breean Walas of Walas Law Firm. See: Turner v. Faulkner Cty., 78 F.4th 1025 (8th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Turner v. Faulkner Cty.