Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Indifference Caused Jail Death, Not Understaffing

(CN) - The 7th Circuit upheld a $4.5 million damages award to the mother of a man who died in Cook County Jail from untreated pneumococcal meningitis. The court found three officers and the county deliberately indifferent to the detainee's medical needs, but rejected a claim that jail understaffing contributed to his death.

Norman Smith, 32, was arrested and booked on charges of drug possession in 2004. The father of thee died less than a week later from pneumococcal meningitis, after he and several fellow prisoners unsuccessfully tried to convince prison guards that Smith was violently ill. Several prisoners testified that Smith spent his time flat on the floor, throwing up, unable to speak or move. Fellow prisoners even filled out medical-care request forms on Smith's behalf, but they were allegedly ignored.

After Smith died, his mother, Marlita Thomas, sued Cook County, its sheriff's department and three correctional employees, claiming they violated her son's constitutional rights by ignoring his serious medical needs.

Doctors testified that pneumococcal meningitis is almost always fatal if not treated, but results in death only about 30 percent of the time if properly diagnosed and treated.

A jury sided with Thomas and awarded damages against the defendants. A federal judge upheld the award and rejected the defendants' bid for a new trial.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit ruled that all defendants were liable except for the sheriff's department.

The three-judge panel said there wasn't enough evidence to connect the sheriff's polices -- specifically, the alleged understaffing at the jail -- and the officers' disregard for Smith's medical needs.

Judge Ann Claire Williams said it was difficult to reconcile the jury's finding that "both the officers' deliberate indifference and the policy of understaffing caused Smith's death" (original emphasis).

"A number of inmates testified that they either complained or witnessed others complain to the officers about Smith's condition. At that point, the officers should have taken the steps necessary to investigate and ensure that Smith received medical attention," Williams wrote.

"The theory that understaffing may have also caused Smith's death, on the other hand, is too remote to support a verdict against the sheriff," she added. "The evidence does not demonstrate that [the guard's] actions had anything to do with understaffing."

Despite clearing the sheriff's department from liability, the court left the full damages award in tact.

"The parties are jointly and severally liable for the entire award, which measures the amount required to compensate the plaintiff for her indivisible harm, and the sheriff only added an additional source from whom the plaintiff could collect," Williams wrote.

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