The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has reversed a federal judge and ruled that qualified immunity does not shield jail guards from claims of deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of people in custody.
The opinion released Monday means a father’s lawsuit over the death of his son can go to a jury.
Visiting Senior Judge Ronald Gilman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Memphis wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Gerald Tjoflat and Kevin Newsom.
“Almus Taylor died from internal bleeding after being kept in a jail holding cell overnight,” Gilman began. His opinion was 11 pages—shorter than most from that court and notably direct, reversing the district judge on every point.
The decision revives the lawsuit filed by Bonny Edward Taylor, Almus’ father and the administrator of Almus’ estate. The father sued the jail guards for deprivation of his son’s civil rights, alleging that they were “deliberately indifferent to Almus’ serious medical needs.” The complaint was made under 42 U.S.Code § 1983 and Alabama state law.
Judge Keith Starrett of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Hattiesburg, filling in on a then-shorthanded Middle District of Alabama, dismissed the case on the basis of qualified immunity and state-agent immunity.
“We’re just glad that they’ve seen fit to reverse it,” said Mike Crow of Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles in Montgomery and Atlanta. Crow represented the Taylor family, along with J. Parker Miller and Dana Taunton of Beasley Allen.
“I told the clients what happened today, and they were elated that we’ll be going forward,” Crow said Wednesday. “We told them all along we thought the judge was totally wrong.”
But he also told the family they were “fighting an uphill battle.” Reversing a trial judge is always difficult—even more so with a Section 1983 civil rights claim, he said. Still, Crow added, “We think we’ve got a good set of facts to get a reversal.”
The guards were defended by Fred Clements Jr., James McNeill and Joshua Willis of Webb & Eley in Montgomery. They could not be reached immediately.
The story started on the night of Nov. 16, 2013. Almus Taylor had spent the day with friends at his deer-hunting club in south Alabama, according to Crow. They had been working on the property, cooking, eating and drinking beer. He was staying in a cabin 6 miles away. He wanted to go back there and take a shower then return to the club to watch the University of Alabama football game. The Crimson Tide were playing Mississippi State, starting at 7:45 p.m, according to the Alabama schedule.
At about 7 p.m., Taylor started down the dirt road with high banks on each side, according to Crow. About a mile away, Taylor hit a bank. He was thrown out, and so were his two hunting dogs—Black and Tan Coonhounds with long floppy ears, a mother and a puppy. He managed to get his pickup truck back on the road and was trying to get the dogs back in it when he collapsed. Along came a Covington County sheriff’s deputy, who found Taylor lying across the seat, unable to walk. The truck was scratched up and so was Taylor. The driver’s side door was in the back. The deputy called for emergency medical services and the Alabama Highway Patrol, who soon arrived. But Taylor refused to get into the ambulance to go to a hospital “unless he could bring his dogs,” Gilman said. The EMS team members said no to the dogs and asked him instead to sign a release refusing services. He couldn’t sign. So they gave him a pen and “accepted Almus making a mark on the form.”
The Taylor family did also sue the EMS, which settled out of the case after paying a confidential amount of money, according to Crow.
After the EMS left, the trooper arrested Taylor for driving under the influence and took him to the county jail, arriving at 9:33 p.m. Gilman said Almus Taylor “appeared highly intoxicated and had to be assisted while walking to the holding cell.” The guards said the trooper told them Almus was “medically cleared” and “just drunk.”
The family would later learn that Almus Taylor had three broken ribs, a lacerated liver and a punctured lung, Crow said.
The guards and other witnesses gave different accounts of his condition, but either way, it’s clear things only worsened during the night, Gilman said.
“Other detainees reported that Almus spent several hours moaning, crying out in pain and begging for medical help. Almus was allegedly told by the guards to ‘shut up.’ The guards, however, claim that Almus seemed fine and was just breathing heavily and moaning,” Gilman said.
“If Almus was begging for medical help, crying out in pain and informing the guards that he was dying, then a reasonable jury could conclude that a lay person would recognize the need for a doctor’s attention,” Gilman said. “In addition, a jury could conclude that the guards’ willful disregard of what they heard and observed during the night made them deliberately indifferent to Almus’ serious medical needs.”
Gilman said the district court “also erred by requiring Bonny to present evidence that the guards knew the cause of Almus’ injury and the specific nature of Almus’ medical problem.” Gilman quoted Starrett’s dismissal order concluding that, even if the guards “were aware of the cries of pain … made during the night, the risk of internal bleeding was not ‘so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention.’”
Gilman dispensed with Starrett’s position by ruling that “a guard does not need to know a detainee’s specific medical condition to be deliberately indifferent to his or her serious medical need.”
“Substantial risk of serious harm” is enough for liability to attach, Gilman said.
“Almus’ guards could therefore have been liable for deliberate indifference if Almus had been suffering from, say, appendicitis or another condition that was totally unrelated to the car crash if they ignored Almus’ cries for help and medical attention,” Gilman said. “In other words, a jury could find that a reasonable lay person, witnessing an individual crying out in pain for several hours and stating that he was ‘dying’ and ‘broke up’ inside, would recognize that a doctor’s attention was necessary to address whatever health problem the individual might be experiencing.”
Almus Taylor finally was taken away by ambulance after a nurse arrived for a 6 a.m. shift and found him spitting up blood, Gilman said. But it was too late.
“Almus died on his way to the hospital from internal bleeding,” Gilman said.
He was 38, according to the family’s lawyer.
Crow said he looks forward to taking the case to a jury. He said he just hopes he gets a different judge.
The case is Taylor v. Hughes and Blue, No. 17-14772.