Seventh Circuit Weighs Blame for Inmate’s Fatal Hunger Strike

CHICAGO (CN) – At oral arguments Wednesday, the Seventh Circuit was highly skeptical of medical staffers’ claim they were blameless for a jailed woman’s death after she stopped eating or drinking for two weeks.

In 2011, Lyvita Gomes, an Indian national, was arrested by a Lake County, Ill., sheriff’s deputy for contempt of court based on failure to appear for jury duty.

But as a non-citizen, Gomes was ineligible to serve on a jury. She told the deputy that she thought she had taken care of the matter with a phone call, and also said that she was ill and could not go to jail.

Nevertheless, the deputy took her into custody and charged her with resisting arrest. At the jail, Gomes was placed on suicide watch due to statements she made during intake. Within days, she was handed over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which processed and released her.

Months later, Gomes was arrested again for failure to appear in court on the resisting arrest charge.

She was brought to the Lake County Jail, where she declared to jail staff that she would not eat or drink while in custody. Gomes’ bond was $5,000, but she could not post the $500 required for her release.

From Dec. 14 to Dec. 28, 2011, Gomes persisted in her hunger strike, neither eating nor drinking for two weeks. The staff was aware of her refusal to eat because she was monitored every 15 minutes as part of the suicide watch protocol.

During this time, she was seen by a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her as psychotic, but neither took steps to ensure her safety despite knowing she was not eating, court records show.

On Dec. 29, Gomes’ kidneys and liver failed from severe dehydration. She was taken to a hospital emergency room, but died on Jan. 3, 2012.

Gomes’ estate sued Lake County official and jail medical provider Correct Care Solutions in federal court and recovered some monetary damages for the pain and suffering she endured during that two-week period, but the judge refused to put the issue of causation to the jury on the estate’s wrongful death claim.

On Wednesday morning, a three-judge Seventh Circuit panel indicted it found ample evidence in the record to support a jury verdict on causation.

The estate’s attorney, Janine Hoft with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, told the court straight away that “proximate cause was a question for the jury,” and the “coroner’s report unequivocally concluded that Ms. Gomes’ death was a result of complications of starvation and dehydration.”

“Why is causation not a jury issue?” U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook asked the medical defendants’ attorney, Scott Howie with Chicago-based Pretzel & Stouffer.

“The whole record seems to point to death by starvation as a form of slow-motion suicide,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton added.

Howie repeatedly emphasized that there is no direct evidence that the jail medical staff’s failure to take action before Dec. 29 caused Gomes’ death, and said there is nothing in the record about the complications Gomes suffered at the hospital for the five days before she died.

U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood asked, “What is it about organ failure that is OK?”

Wood noted that the coroner’s report blames Gomes’ death on her starvation, and she was in critical condition before she went to the hospital.

Judge Easterbrook interjected, “Is it your position that, in Illinois, jail staff may permit a prisoner to commit suicide?”

However, Howie rejected the notion that staff may just stand by while an inmate slowly starves to death.

Oral arguments on Wednesday repeatedly referenced back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, in which the high court’s liberal wing overturned a Seventh Circuit decision to rule that a pretrial detainee must only prove that force used by police is excessive according to an objective standard, not that the officer was subjectively aware the use of force was unreasonable.

The judges clearly struggled to decide how Kingsley should be applied in a medical context.

“There is no claim here about the intentional use of force,” Easterbrook said.

But Hamilton noted that the jail medical staff’s failure to take any action to save Gomes, despite knowing the danger of not eating or drinking, was intentional.

“Yea, they made a conscious decision to let her lie there,” Wood agreed.

Attorney Jeffrey Given with the Sotos Law Firm represented the non-medical Lake County defendants.

The Seventh Circuit is expected to issue a ruling on the matter within three months.

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