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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