Seventh Circuit Revives Claims Over Deadly Hunger Strike

CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit ruled Friday that medical staffers could likely have prevented a jailed woman’s death after she stopped eating or drinking for two weeks.

In 2012, the administrator to the estate of Lyvita Gomes, a 52-year-old woman who died while incarcerated, sued the Lake County official and jail contract medical provider Correct Care Solutions claiming jail staff could have prevented her death.

A federal judge awarded Gomes’ estate $119,000 in compensatory damages for the pain and suffering she endured during her two-week hunger strike but refused to put the issue of causation to the jury on the wrongful death claim.

A three-judge Seventh Circuit panel heard arguments on the issue in December 2017 by estate lawyer Janine Hoft of People’s Law Office in Chicago and the medical defendants’ attorney Scott Howie with Chicago-based Pretzel & Stouffer.

Chief Circuit Judge Diane Wood called for a new trial in the panel’s 28-page opinion, writing Friday that “a jury could have found that the defendants’ inaction more likely than not contributed to Gomes’ decreased chance of survival and her ultimate death.”

Gomes, an Indian national, was arrested in 2011 on a contempt of court charge for failing to show up for jury duty. But as a noncitizen, Gomes was ineligible to serve on a jury. She told the Lake County, Illinois, sheriff’s deputy that she thought she had taken care of the matter with a phone call, adding she was ill and could not go to jail.

Nevertheless, she was taken into custody and charged with resisting arrest. While incarcerated, she was placed on suicide watch due to statements she made during intake. After a few days, her case was sent to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which processed and released her.

When she failed to show up in court on the resisting arrest charge two months later, she was arrested again.

While at Lake County Jail, Gomes told jail staff she would not eat or drink. Based on this statement, she was again placed on suicide watch and monitored every 15 minutes.

Unable to post the $500 required for her release, Gomes intentionally starved and dehydrated herself for two weeks from Dec. 14 to Dec. 28, until she was taken to a hospital emergency room. She died of kidney and liver failure on Jan. 3, 2012.

During her incarceration, Correct Care Solutions jail medical doctor, Rozel Elazegui and psychiatrist Hargurmukh Singh both diagnosed her as psychotic. But neither took steps to ensure her safety despite knowledge that she was not eating, according to court records.

“A properly instructed jury could find that Drs. Elazegui and Singh made the decision to continue observing Gomes in the jail, rather than transporting her to the hospital, with purposeful, knowing, or reckless disregard of the consequences,” Hamilton wrote. “Here, there is evidence that Drs. Elazegui and Singh deliberately chose a ‘wait and see’ monitoring plan, knowing that Gomes was neither eating nor drinking nor competent to care for herself.”

The panel remanded the case for a new trial on the estate’s wrongful death claim. The judges upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss Corrections Chief Wayne Hunter and Health Services Administrator Scott Fitch at summary judgment, finding their reliance on the medical providers shielded them from liability.

Circuit Judges Frank Easterbrook and David Hamilton rounded out the panel.

Estate attorney Janine Hoft and medical defendants’ attorney Scott Howie did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Monday.


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