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Claims arising out of medication-overdose in Grand Traverse County Jail are dismissed

The family of Christopher Robin Morden sued the County Jail, the nurse and doctor paid to provide coverage in the jail, the jail's retained psychiatrist and her employer, Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, after Morden died while incarcerated.  After his arrest, authorities noted suicidal warnings and placed Morden on suicide alert.  Morden was already taking psychotropic medications, and these were maintained. 

Morden's condition did not stabilize and over the following two months he was examined by the nurse, the jail doctor and the psychiatrist periodically, with the psychiatrist apparently seeing him about every two weeks.  His medications were increased and new medications were prescribed.   His condition varied from "druggy" to relatively normal.  The psychiatrist believed that his mental condition had improved, but that Morden was suffering side effects. On March 26, the jail physician noted that Morden may be "overmedicated" but also noted that the psychiatrist had changed the medication regime three days earlier, so he took no further action.  Five days later, Morden died of a sudden cardiac event.

The family sued, alleging both a medical malpractice claim and that the inadequate medical treatment of the jailed inmate constituted "cruel and unusual punishment"  and was a denial of his civil rights.  The family retained a psychiatrist to review the chart and he concluded that Morden died as a result of a condition known as neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS) which the treaters should have diagnosed and treated, preventing the death.

The Defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals several years ago and persuaded the higher court that the civil rights claim must be dismissed because the family could not prove that the defendants were "deliberately indifferent" to Morden's condition. (Federal civil rights claims, or "1983" claims, require proof of a higher standard than simple negligence; the governmental agent is responsible only if he or she knew that injury was likely to occur and failed to act.) In passing, the higher court also held that the family had failed to provide adequate proof that Morden died of NMS, ruling that the psychiatrist's opinion was improper speculation.

The case was returned to the lower court for consideration of the medical malpractice claim.  The trial judge concluded that pursuant to the "law of the case" Morden's family was precluded from proving that NMS and drug overdosage were the causes of Morden's death because those causation claims had already been ruled out (as inadequately documented) by the higher court, even though they now related to a malpractice claim rather than a constitutional claim.  It further noted that the Plaintiffs had not presented adequate proof that the individual defendants violated the standard of care (provided treatment that was less than an average specialist would have provided) in "overmedicating" Morden, and therefore no malpractice claim could be sustained.  The Court of Appeals upheld this outcome.

Since the ruling was premised on the inadequacy of the family's proofs, we will never have a substantive answer with regard to whether the jail care was inadequate or the death preventable. Perhaps the psychiatrist didn't do what a reasonable psychiatrist would have done; perhaps a general practitioner should have reacted more aggressivedly to Morden's over-medication.  If so, the family's attorneys failed to retain the proper experts and to ask them the proper questions. If the cardiac arrest was brought on by over-medication that fact should have been documented with appropriate specialists relying on solid science, early on.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
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