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Estate of Simpson v. Gorbett

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 14, 2017

Estate of Dennis Simpson, et ah, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Mark E. Gorbett, James Tindell, Jared Williams, Johnny York, Travis Harbaugh, and Cory Lehman, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued January 6, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. l:14-cv-01035-SEB-MJD - Sarah Evans Barker, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         This case concerns the death of Dennis Simpson, an inmate who fell off an upper bunk while incarcerated in the Bartholomew County Jail for a drunken driving conviction. Simpson was intoxicated when he reported to the jail to serve his weekend stay, prompting officers initially to place him in a holding cell. After they thought he was sober, they assigned him to an upper bunk in a two-person cell, even though he was obviously obese. While sleeping, Simpson went into convulsions and fell off the bunk on to the hard concrete floor. He died from his injuries.

         His estate sued six county employees-five officers and the sheriff-arguing that the conditions under which the jail kept Simpson and the care he received were inadequate under the Eighth Amendment. The district court found there was insufficient evidence to show the defendants were aware of, but disregarded, a risk to Simpson's health and safety, and so granted them summary judgment. We affirm.


         Simpson reported to the Bartholomew County Jail around 10:30 a.m. on Friday, November 29, 2013. He was there to serve his second of three weekends of confinement as punishment for a May 2013 drunk driving violation. Anyone could see that Simpson was obese. Although the officers did not know Simpson's precise weight (368 pounds) because they did not weigh him at check-in, one of the defendants correctly guessed that Simpson weighed between 350 and 400 pounds.

         Simpson also was intoxicated that morning. The deputy processing him upon his arrival, Officer Johnny York, smelled alcohol on Simpson's breath. York tested Simpson's blood alcohol content (BAC), and found it was 0.23%, just short of three times Indiana's legal limit for driving. York notified his supervisor, Sergeant James Tindell, who in turn asked Simpson whether he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Simpson said he was not. Bartholomew County Jail policy called for intoxicated inmates with BACs under 0.25% to be placed in holding cells until they were sober. In accordance with that rule, Simpson was placed in a holding cell containing only benches-no beds. At some point Simpson complained to York about his placement, to no avail. York responded that Simpson was too intoxicated to be placed in a cell with bunk beds at that time. York served Simpson lunch around 11:20 a.m.; this was apparently the last time those two had contact. Officer Travis Harbaugh, another defendant, replaced York that evening. At some point when Harbaugh checked on Simpson, Simpson reported that he had blood in his stool. Harbaugh informed a supervising officer, Jared Williams, about Simpson's condition.

         Around 11:30 p.m., Harbaugh moved Simpson to a cell that had two bunk beds. Harbaugh and York said that it was common practice to use a burn-off chart to estimate how many hours it takes a person's blood alcohol level to reach zero. (While blood-alcohol content is certainly relevant in these situations, if the person is an alcoholic, so are withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens; the latter symptoms do not normally manifest themselves until withdrawal happens-that is, when BAC nears zero. We address this briefly below.) At the time of transfer, the defendants apparently believed Simpson was sober, although they did not re-test him. The lower bunk in Simpson's new cell was occupied, and so Simpson was given the upper bunk. Simpson's bed was affixed to a wall of the jail cell a little more than four feet off the ground. It was only 30 inches wide. (To put this in context, we note that a standard twin bed is about 25% wider, at 38 inches.)

         Simpson slept on his assigned upper bunk for some time. But around 3:15 a.m., he suddenly began experiencing seizure-like convulsions. He rolled out of the bunk and fell to the concrete floor, hitting his head. Officers Harbaugh and Cory Lehman witnessed Simpson's fall and ran into the cell to check on him. Finding him unresponsive, they performed CPR on him until paramedics arrived and rushed him to a nearby emergency room, where he was pronounced dead at 4 a.m. For the purposes of the summary judgment motion, the defendants concede that Simpson died of injuries sustained from his fall, and that his fall was precipitated by an alcohol withdrawal seizure.

         Simpson's estate asserts that at the time of Simpson's fall, jail policy "required inmates weighing more than 350 pounds to be placed in lower bunks." It supports this contention with an indirect citation to an undated order apparently from the Bartholomew County Sheriff's Department concerning the jail's medical care policies for inmates. But the only indication of any such policy comes from Advanced Correctional Healthcare, which did not enter into a contract to provide medical services for the jail until November 2013. Thus, we see no evidentiary support for the Estate's contention that jail policy called for obese inmates to be given lower bunks and accordingly disregard that possibility.

         After Advanced Correctional came on the scene, which was several months after Simpon's death, it promulgated medical guidelines for the jail. Included in the Advanced Correctional guidelines was a list of "criteria for Bottom Bunks." The list called for certain people to be given lower bunks, including inmates who are elderly, have diagnosed seizures or diabetes, or, as relevant here, were obese, defined as weighing over 350 pounds. Another rule called on the facility to "[a]ddress 'serious' medical, dental, and mental health issues."

         In the wake of Simpson's unfortunate death, Simpson's son, Devon Simpson, and sister, Gloria Skinner, brought this section 1983 action against six county officials in their individual and official capacities, on Simpson's behalf as representatives of his estate. The lawsuit named as defendants Sheriff Mark E. Gorbett-the head of the jail-and deputies York, Williams, Harbaugh, Lehman, and Tindell. The complaint alleged that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to Simpson's serious medical needs and that they subjected him to inhumane conditions of confinement, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district court construed the Estate's deliberate indifference claim as embracing three theories of liability: one concerning the ...

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