Family of inmate who loses 46 pounds waiting for trial has limited right to sue
The family of Vernard Jones sued Muskegon County, several jailors, the jail nurses and a doctor, after Jones died while incarcerated from September of 2004 until May of 2005, waiting for a trial. Over this period Jones lost 46 pounds before he was seen by a nurse, and seven more pounds in the next 9 days, before he received definitive treatment. Five former inmates filed affidavits alleging that the County Jail did not respond to Jones' multiple complaints of medical needs ("kites" in the vernacular); and they also identified multiple similar claims (including failure to respond to a seizure; failure, for weeks, to diagnose a broken leg; and failure, for weeks, to respond to a kidney stone. Ultimately, Jones was taken to Hackley Hospital where he was described as "emaciated," "cachectic," and "clinically dehydrated." When surgery was performed four days later, abdominal cancer was diagnosed. He died in jail the following month. His family filed suit alleging gross negligence by several actors, "deliberate indifference to Jones' medical needs" under 42 USC 1983, and a "custom or policy" of the jail to deny inmates needed medical attention.The District Judge dismissed all of the claims against all of the Defendants, ruling that "regardless of how ineffective [Jones' medical] assistance may have been, his medical care was not so 'woefully inadequate' as to amount to deliberate indifference. It held that "the failures in moral responsibility that may have taaken place...were simply not enough to give rise to legal liability."
The Sixth Circuit upheld this decision except with respect to two of the jail nurses. It pointed to the specific allegations in the family's factual affidavits that created a question of fact with regard to whether the nurses' failure to respond to Jones' complaints manifested "deliberate indifference" or "gross negligence." Those claims must be decided by a jury.
With regard to the remaining claims, however, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision. It held that jurors could not reasonably identify an unspoken policy of neglect from the five inmate affidavits attesting to failures to respond to apparently serious conditions. It also held that the doctor's diagnosis of severe constipation, and his prescription of a laxative and water, in the face of constant, unrelenting abdominal pain and the loss of 46 pounds, could not constitute "deliberate indifference" to Jones' health needs.