Nurse Faces Suit for Wrongful Death of Jail Inmate Says 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Headshot of attorney George IndestBy George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

On March 3, 2021, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part, a Utah court’s decision on a lawsuit for the death of a 21-year-old inmate, affirming that the jail’s doctor could claim qualified immunity, but not the nurse. After the inmate’s death, her estate sued for depriving her of her civil rights. The U.S. district court granted summary judgment in favor of the county. It ruled that qualified immunity applied to shield jail supervisors and staff. However, it denied qualified immunity to jail nurse Jana Clyde and to a private doctor who consulted with the prison, Dr. Kennon Tubbs.

The 10th Circuit appeal panel reversed the lower court’s decision, stating that one doctor can claim qualified immunity. It ruled that the jail’s nurse must face claims of civil rights violations, which are not subject to immunity. Court filings alleged that jail staff, including its nurse, ignored the inmate’s rapidly deteriorating health.

Failure to Secure Medical Treatment Despite Obvious Risks to the Inmate.

In 2016, Madison Jensen, the inmate, allegedly died from opiate withdrawal at the Duchesne County jail in Utah. After the 21-year old inmate was booked, she was allegedly placed in a cell with another woman and almost immediately began vomiting. Her vomiting allegedly continued for five days. The jail’s nurse failed to tell the physician’s assistant or doctor about Jensen’s condition, according to the complaint.

The jail’s video recording system captured the female inmate rolling off her bed and having a seizure. About 30 minutes later, both the nurse and doctor discovered she had died in her cell, the complaint said. The inmate’s cause of death was reported to be cardiac arrhythmia from dehydration due to opiate withdrawal.

Civil Rights Violation Claims.

After the inmate’s death, her estate sued for deprivation of her civil rights. The United States District Court for the District of Utah granted summary judgment for the county and the jail supervisors and staff, based on their qualified immunity. However, it denied qualified immunity to the jail nurse and the contracted doctor. Jensen’s estate claimed the jail nurse had shown deliberate indifference to the inmate’s serious medical needs, as she failed to secure medical treatment despite obvious signs and risks. In response, the nurse argued that she took reasonable steps to provide care and that she wasn’t aware that the inmate faced serious medical needs.

The circuit court judges held that “the unique circumstances of this case” allow the doctor to raise the defense of his qualified immunity. As for the jail nurse, the court said, “a trier of fact could conclude that she did not just misdiagnose Ms. Jensen, she ‘completely refused to fulfill her duty as gatekeeper.’ The nurse showed “near-complete indifference” toward the inmate that “grossly deviated from the standard of care for treating severe dehydration, especially when the result of a failure to treat is death” according to the court’s opinion.

“We believe that these circumstances — particularly her [the inmate’s] self-report that she had been vomiting for four days and could not keep down water — present a risk of harm that would be obvious to a reasonable person,” the court said. To read more, click here for the court’s opinion in full.

This isn’t the first case of an inmate’s family suing after Improper Care. Click here to read about a similar wrongful death suit of a Florida inmate.

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O’Brian, Rachel. “10th Circ. Says Nurse Must Face Wrongful Death Suit.” Law360. (March 13, 2021). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avene, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toff-Free: (888) 331-6620.


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