Quadriplegiac entitled to jury trial on claim against prison nurse
A prisoner who is injured by the actions of a Department of Corrections employee has two potential outlets for legal recourse. He or she can sue under state law and recover if he proves "gross negligence" that is "the" cause of his injuries. He or she can also sue under federal law, alleging a constitutional violation. If he has received inadequate medical care, the federal violation can result in liability of the individual employee, if the employee is guilty of "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's legitimate medical needs and if the violation is clearly established such that the employee does not enjoy qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit recently upheld a trial court's determination that Luis Dominguez had established a right to jury trial on both of these theories in Dominguez v. Correctional Medical Services, et al., and Julie Fletcher.
Dominguez was exercising in the prison yard at Carson City Correctional Facility, when he complained of feeling dizzy and struggling to breathe. It was 90 degrees outdoors and his cell was not air conditioned. He returned to his cell, but remained uncomfortable so he raised his concerns with a guard. The guard relayed his concerns to the prison nurse at 3:30 p.m. She concluded he was suffering from heat exhaustion and told the guard she'd check on him during rounds that evening. She instructed that he should take fluids and lie down to rest.
At 4 p.m. the guard found Dominguez in his cell "getting worse", sweating profusely and throwing up. He was taken to see Fletcher at the medical unit, where she recorded that he had numbness in his left arm and was having trouble breathing. She did not attempt to measure his temperature, and although he vomited during the examination, she returned him to his cell with the same basic instruction. She did not send him to one of the two air conditioned cells. At about 6:30, he was found unconscious and the guard could not wake him. The guard reported to Fletcher that he had been lying down in his cell since leaving the medical unit, but remained dizzy, and unable to drink water.
Fletcher againt told the guard to give Dominguez water, and although the guard attempted, Fletcher was informed five minutes later that he vomited when he tried to drink. Another inmate was instructed to bring Dominguez to the medical unit, where he had the same complaints but also indicated that his side felt "prickly". Fletcher talked to a D.O. at the local hospital by phone. He told her to put him in the air conditioned cell, place ice on his body and encourage him to drink. At 7:25, Dominguez' condition worsened rapidly; his speech became slurred and he shook uncontrollably, before becoming completely unresponsive.
Fletcher could not entubate him through his clenched jaw, so EMS was called. Dominguez was transported to Carson City Hospital and then to W.A.Foote in Jackson. He has remained a quadriplegic "with limited communication but complete consciousness" since. He was given a medical parole in 2002 (So that the D.O.C. would not have to pay for his care?). He is apparently fully aware of his condition, but completely paralyzed: the ultimate incarceration.
Dominguez sued, claiming that Fletcher's deliberate indifference to his gradually worsening condition caused an easily interruptible medical problem to become a devastating permanent disability. Needless to say, we don't punish even hardened criminals--let alone Carson City inmates--by inflicting brain damage or permanent immobility.
Fletcher's insurer and attorneys argued that Fletcher was not indifferent to Dominguez' condition, that she was not guilty of gross negligence, and that her improper conduct, if any, was not "the" cause of Dominguez' continuing health issues. The lower court and a unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit agreed that Dominguez' attorneys had set forth sufficient facts to make each of these questions appropriate for decision by a jury. Fletcher's appeal was denied and the case was sent back to the lower court for a trial on its merits.