Seventh Circuit Awards Summary Judgment to Jail Officers in Intoxicated Detainee’s Fall from Upper Bunk

December 4, 2018

The Seventh Circuit reversed an Indiana District Court’s denial of summary judgment to two correctional officers on duty when a detainee fell from an upper bunk and ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the claims regarding the fall. In Lovett v. Herbert, No. 17-1668 (7th Cir. Oct. 29, 2018), an arrestee was booked into the Clay County Jail on suspicion of drunk driving. The jail had several areas to house pre-trial detainees, including several double-occupancy cells with bunk beds, a medical isolation cell, a padded cell, and a “drunk tank.” The “drunk tank” was occupied by immigration detainees set for transfer, the medical cell was occupied, and the double-occupancy cells were occupied by various male and female detainees, some of which had safety concerns. The arrestee was placed in a double-occupancy cell with another detainee who required the bottom bunk due to a medical restriction.

One of the corrections officers instructed the arrestee that he could take the top mattress and move it to the floor if the arrestee could not climb into the bunk bed due to his intoxication. The arrestee was not placed in the padded cell because he did not appear to be at risk of self-harm. Instead of taking down the mattress, the arrestee climbed into the top bunk, and a short time later, fell from the top bunk while trying to get down, sustaining a serious head injury. The arrestee died several months later. At the hospital, the arrestee’s blood alcohol content was measured at 0.22%. Based on disputed facts, the District Court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The Defendants appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit ruled that the Officers were entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the lower court’s decision. The “severe intoxication” in and of itself did not necessarily suggest an imminent or ongoing danger to the arrestee that requiring use of an upper bunk was objectively unreasonable. The undisputed facts known to the Officers showed that, despite his intoxicated state, the detainee was capable of communicating and maneuvering around on his own. Further, the detainee chose on his own volition to climb into the upper bunk rather than take the mattress and place it on the ground, and chose not to wait until he was sufficiently sober to climb into the upper bunk. The risk posed by a fall from the upper bunk was not so obviously foreseeable by the officers as to make the injury likely or render the conduct by the Officers unreasonable. The Officers were therefore entitled to qualified immunity as their conduct did not violate clearly established law.

Lovett v. Herbert


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