7th Circuit clears Bartholomew jail officers in inmate death

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department officials who interacted with a man who later died in the county jail, finding the man’s estate failed to prove the officials were deliberately indifferent to the man’s medical concerns.

In November 2013, Dennis Simpson reported to the Bartholomew County Jail to serve a weekend of confinement as part of his punishment for an earlier drunken driving violation. When he arrived at the jail, Officer Johnny York tested Simpson’s blood alcohol content and found it to be 0.23 percent.

York’s supervisor, Sergeant James Tindell, asked Simpson if he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms, but Simpson said he was not. He was then placed in a holding cell until he became sober, pursuant to jail policy.

While in the holding cell, Simpson, complained that he had found blood in his stool, so Officer Travis Harbaugh informed his supervising officer, Jared Williams, of Simpson’s condition. Harbaugh then moved Simpson to a cell with two bunk beds around 11:30 p.m. based on the belief that he was sober.

Despite weighing more than 350 pounds, Simpson was placed on a narrow upper bunk. Then around 3:15 a.m., Simpson began convulsing, rolled out of the bunk and fell onto the concrete floor, hitting his head. Harbaugh and Officer Cory Lehman performed CPR until paramedics arrived and took Simpson to the emergency room, where he was later pronounced dead from the injuries of his fall, which was caused by an alcohol withdrawal seizure.

Several months after Simpson’s death, Advanced Correctional Healthcare promulgated a “criteria for Bottom Bunks” for the jail, which called for inmates weighing more than 350 pounds to be placed in lower bunks. The criteria also called on the jail to address “‘serious’ medical, dental, and mental health issues.” However, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote in a Friday opinion there was no evidence of such a policy being formally in place at the time of Simpson’s death.

Simpson’s son and sister filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in 2015 against the five officers who attended to Simpson and former Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett, alleging they were deliberately indifferent to Simpson’s medical needs and that they subjected him to inhumane conditions in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker interpreted those claims as three theories of liability: the conditions of confinement, failure to provide adequate medical care, and failure on Gorbett’s part to adequately train his deputies.

Barker then granted summary judgment to all defendants on all claims. The estate appealed, and in an affirmation of the grant of summary judgment, the 7th Circuit panel determined the appeal could be limited to individual-capacity claims against York, Tindell and Harbaugh.

The 7th Circuit then determined Simpson’s estate provided no evidence that he was still drunk when he was given a bed after 13 hours in a holding cell or that the narrow bed denied him “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” Additionally, the appellate court said the estate failed to show how jail officials could have provided care or additional care for Simpson’s obesity or chronic alcoholism.

“Had the deputies known about Simpson’s alcoholism and the risk posed by withdrawal, they might have taken additional steps to protect Simpson from accidental harm,” Wood wrote. “But in the absence of any indication that they knew of a serious risk, they cannot be held liable under section 1983 for either the conditions of confinement of the medical treatment they provided.”

The case is Estate of Dennis Simpson, et al v. Mark E. Gorbett, James Tindell, Jared Williams, Johnny York, Travis Harbaugh and Cory Lehman, 16-2899.


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  1. He TIL team,please zap this comment too since it was merely marking a scammer and not reflecting on the story. Thanks, happy Monday, keep up the fine work.

  2. You just need my social security number sent to your Gmail account to process then loan, right? Beware scammers indeed.

  3. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: Here are the two research papers: 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.