Inmate's Heat Stroke Death Gives Court Pause
HOUSTON (CN) - Immunity is not available to a nurse after the Texas inmate she sent back to his allegedly "blazing hot" cell died of heat stroke, a federal judge ruled.
On the night he died, Aug. 8, 2011, Michael Martone had complained to guard Kerry Collard about feeling "very sick" and said he had been puking for the past two days, according to the complaint.
It had been the eighth straight day of 100-plus degree heat at Huntsville State Prison, 70 miles north of Houston, and 57-year-old Martone allegedly griped on his way to the infirmary about feeling dizzy, short of breath and dehydrated, despite drinking lots of water.
Nurse Peggy McCleskey was the only staff member in the infirmary at the time, and all she cared about was getting off work at her scheduled time, according to the complaint.
She allegedly connected Martone to Patricia Rye, a nurse at another prison, via videoconference and clocked out.
"Despite knowing that Mr. Martone took medications that react dangerously with the heat to treat his disabilities, and he had been suffering classic symptoms of heat stroke for two days, Nurse Rye dismissed his concerns," the complaint alleges.
Rye told Martone it was "nothing serious" and instructed him to drink lots of water and return to the infirmary in the morning, according to the complaint.
Martone was not long back in his cell, however, when a guard allegedly saw the inmate grasping the bars on his cell's window. Martone then began convulsing and collapsed, according to the complaint.
Although he was slipping in and out of consciousness, guards allegedly waited 20 minutes to call 911.
An ambulance got there an hour after Michael's collapse, and he was pronounced dead in a hospital emergency room with his body temperature measured at 108 degrees, according to the complaint.
Martone's daughter Roxanne filed suit last year against several officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides health care to 80 percent of Texas prisoners, including the Huntsville prison.
She claimed that Texas does not air-condition the cells of its state prisons, but wardens and other officials keep their offices cooled to "a comfortable 75 degrees."
The policy has had dire consequences for susceptible inmates as 14 have died of heat-related causes since 2007, she added.
Martone allegedly suffered from high-blood pressure and depression, and he carried 309 pounds on his 6-foot frame at the time of his death.
Finding that the complaint sufficiently alleges a claim against the medical branch, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison refused to dismiss it as a defendant on Wednesday.
The court also denied nurse Rye qualified immunity, finding that her actions - allegedly failing to take Martone's vital signs - "were objectively unreasonable."
TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston and three other officials had sought similar relief, but Ellison deferred deciding their motion with a nod to ongoing "parallel" lawsuits in other Texas federal courts.
Back in March, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had refused in Hinojosa v. Livingston to decide whether Texas prison officials are liable for an inmate's heat-caused death.
Ramos requested further inquiry into when and how the officials learned about specific prisoner deaths, whether the officials commissioned a study on extreme heat and inmate safety, the officials' familiarity with related 5th Circuit case law, and if the prison directors had studied the costs of reducing cell temperatures.
With those questions still unanswered Ellison wrote: "The court defers ruling on qualified immunity and allows limited discovery to resolve the issue. Discovery is limited to the personal knowledge and personal conduct of each defendant as it relates to Mr. Martone and the circumstances that led to his death."
Martone's attorney, Brian McGiverin with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he felt good about his client's chances in light of the ruling.
"The judge's ruling was smart and thoughtful," McGiverin said in an interview. "The most important part was that he decided to defer judgment on the issue of qualified immunity. ... Given the circumstances I'm fairly confident we will succeed on the issue."
Livingston's lawyer, Cynthia Burton of the state attorney general's office, did not return a request for comment.