Can a detainee sue a jail for denial of medical treatment?

Medical Attention

Unfortunately, we receive phone calls all the time for people who tell that their loved one has been arrested, the loved one has a medical condition, and the jail is not giving them adequate medical treatment for the medical condition. While jails are only obligated to provide the minimum necessary care for general medical conditions, like migraines, diabetes, and high blood pressure, that still does not mean that they can ignore someone’s medical problems.

When it comes to suing police officers, correctional officers, and jails for denial of medical care, certain things must be addressed. First, they have to identify how they are suing each defendant (for example, whether they are suing a correctional officer in their individual or official capacities). We’ll cover that in a later post.

Most importantly, they must identify whether there is a legitimate denial of medical care claim. To do that, the personal injury lawyer must deeply dive into the facts leading up to the plaintiff’s injury. The Constitution imposes a duty on the state (read: jails) to provide for the safety and well-being of the people it incarcerates or detainees. The special language is that the state must provide for detainees’ “basic human needs,” including “food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety.” Under the law, jails cannot respond with deliberate indifference to a detainee’s serious medical needs.

Here is where this is tricky. First, the detainee’s medical needs must be serious. The best way to think about that is that the condition is life-threatening or potentially life-threatening. It cannot be something minor, but that is not to say that something minor cannot progress into something that is serious (for example, a person with high blood pressure may not start off with it being serious, but left unchecked and without proper monitoring and treatment, it can lead to a heart attack).

The next part is that the plaintiff must show deliberate indifference on the part of jail staff. To prove deliberate indifference, the plaintiff must show that the defendants knew that there was a substantial risk of serious harm and failed to take reasonable measures to avoid or minimize that risk. The knowledge question is subjective, which is pretty much the same as asking did the defendants know about it (whether from the detainee, family members, medical forms, etc.). The second question is whether the measures taken were reasonable, which asks if the defendant’s response to the known risk was reasonable as a matter of law. In other words, this question asks whether the defendants took any steps and, if so, whether those steps were reasonable given the medical condition. If the defendant failed to act or turned a blind eye towards the medical condition, then there is a good likelihood that the defendant will be liable for whatever happens to the plaintiff.

Here is an example: let’s say that John Doe was arrested, charged with a crime, and held at the Hinds County jail. While at the jail, he does not tell jail staff that he has high blood pressure and must take medication to control his blood pressure. After he’s booked, though, his mom calls the jail and tells jail staff that John needs to take his blood pressure medicine regularly; otherwise, he may have to go to the hospital. The jail staff ignores her and does not check into the situation. Two days later, John suffers a massive heart attack and dies. Is the jail liable? Probably. Even though John did not tell anyone about his health condition, his mother notifying the jail about it is enough to trigger an additional inquiry from the jail at least so that they minimize the risk of potential harm to John.

Let’s change the facts up a little. John is arrested, charged with a crime, held at the jail, and doesn’t tell jail staff about his blood pressure and need for medication. His mom DOES NOT call the jail to let them know of his condition and need for medication. The next day, John complains to a correctional officer that his chest is hurting a little bit, and the officer says that the nurse will see him when she is there in a few days. The very next day, John dies from a heart attack. Is the jail still liable? Probably not. Even though John complained of chest pains, the jail is given a pass. Correctional officers are not medical professionals.

Denial of medical care cases is tricky. The devil is always in the details. The best thing to do if you or a loved one is arrested and is suffering from a severe medical condition is to notify jail personnel immediately, often, and with whatever means necessary. I recommend having a family call, email, fax, and sit down with a jail official to let them know. Doing these things helps to create the necessary paper trail to ensure that you and your loved one are protected while also ensuring that someone will be held responsible if something terrible happens to them medically.