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Judge Won’t Dismiss Inmate Death Lawsuit

CORPUS CHRISTI (CN) - More discovery is needed to determine whether Texas prison officials are liable for an inmate's death from heat stroke, a federal judge ruled.

Albert Hinojosa was found dead in his cell in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Garza Unit in Beeville on Aug. 29, 2012.

An autopsy showed he died from hyperthermia, a condition triggered when a body produces more heat than it dissipates. He was 44.

Hinojosa's medical history included hypertension, diabetes, depression and schizophrenia. The autopsy report stated that he was vulnerable to heat stroke due to his pre-existing medical conditions.

His mother, Ramona Hinojosa, sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its Executive Director Brad Livingston, the University of Texas Medical Branch, and five other TDCJ officials in Federal Court in October 2013.

The UTMB provides health care to 80 percent of Texas prisoners under a partnership with the state.

Hinojosa asked for punitive damages for wrongful death and violations of civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hinojosa claimed that prison officials were aware that since 2007 at least 17 Texas inmates had died in state prisons from heat stroke or heat-related causes, yet they failed to implement policies to prevent such deaths.

The TDCJ officials in February tried to dismiss the case on the basis of qualified immunity. They claimed that Hinojosa was trying to hold them liable for their subordinates' conduct, and that they were not involved in any medical or housing decision for her son.

Qualified immunity shields public officials from liability if their conduct does not violate constitutional or statutory rights that a reasonable person would know about.

Ruling from the bench, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos denied the officials' motion to dismiss.

The officials filed a motion for reconsideration, claiming that as "executive security personnel" they are not privy to any medical decisions involving inmates.

Ramos also shot that motion down, and followed up with an order explaining her decisions.

"The Court found, and continues to so find, that plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts that, if true, state an Eighth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference as to Albert Hinojosa's health and safety," Ramos wrote in a 17-page ruling.

"The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Prison officials must provide humane conditions of confinement; ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care; and take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates."

Citing 5th Circuit precedent holding that prisoners have a right to protection from extreme cold, Ramos found that extreme temperature claims are allowed under the Eighth Amendment.

Ramos noted that Hinojosa's attorney Jeff Edwards of Austin is also plaintiff's counsel for a similar case pending in the Eastern District of Texas.

In that case, the Estate of Robert Allen Webb alleges that he died from extreme heat while incarcerated in the TDCJ's Hodge Unit in Rusk, Texas.

A federal magistrate judge recommended denying the defendants' motion to dismiss the Webb lawsuit last December and advised that limited discovery proceed on the issue of qualified immunity.

A federal judge in Tyler, Texas adopted that recommendation on March 17.

Ramos' decision mirrors that ruling, as she ordered limited discovery to determine what exactly TDCJ officials knew about the heat-related deaths of inmates when Albert Hinojosa died.

"In particular, in assessing personal knowledge, it is necessary to know when and how the TDCJ defendants learned about specific prisoner deaths, including the death of Albert Hinojosa, and/or serious injury related to extreme heat," Ramos wrote.

Ramos limited the discovery to "the personal knowledge and personal conduct of each defendant as it relates to Albert Hinojosa and the circumstances leading to his death," pointing out that although Hinojosa's complaint mentions other inmates' heat-related deaths "this is not a class action, nor have the cases been consolidated."

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