Death of an Inmate While in Custody

Janssen Malloy LLP partner Michael J. Crowley and associate Megan A. Yarnall are currently handling a civil rights/wrongful death action in the United States District Court in Eugene, Oregon, arising out of the death of a 24 year old inmate who died while in the custody of the Cottage Grove City Jail in 2012.  The young man, sentenced to 10 days in jail for misdemeanor possession of a single Xanax pill without a prescription, died on the seventh day of his incarceration from complications of narcotic withdrawal and aspiration pneumonia.  His only “medical evaluation” was by paramedics from a local fire department, whose scope of practice is limited to stabilizing the patient for transport to a hospital for treatment. The decedent was never taken by Cottage Grove police to a hospital for treatment, despite complaints of vomiting blood during his incarceration, and despite the court conducting a hearing at the prisoner’s cell because he was too ill to make it up one flight of stairs to the courtroom in Cottage Grove (which is in the same building as the jail).

The lawsuit contends that this tragic death was completely preventable and constituted a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the decedent’s civil rights, and that the lack of basic medical treatment amounts to wrongful death under Oregon law.    Janssen Malloy LLP represents the mother of the decedent, who is also the personal representative of his estate.  The City of Cottage Grove has denied liability, and the matter is proceeding towards trial.

This type of a lawsuit is commonly referred to as “1983” actions, because it proceed under 42 U.S.C Section 1983, a portion of the United States Code (federal law) that authorizes such claims against government entities.  These cases are normally vigorously defended.  Being in federal court presents unique challenges for trial as the jury’s verdict must be unanimous (compared to the California state law procedure in which only 9 of 12 jurors need to vote for the plaintiff for plaintiff to prevail) and the federal rules of evidence and procedure differ greatly from state law.

The true measure of a democratic society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.  Those in custody for a short misdemeanor sentence do not deserve to face a death sentence through neglect and indifference.  Janssen Malloy LLP is experienced in handling such civil rights cases, and is frequently in federal court to defend and protect citizens and families from egregious government misconduct. Over the last several years,  Janssen Malloy LLP has handled cases involving illegal strip searches of female citizens in Humboldt County, excessive police brutality, wrongful death and civil rights claims.

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