Seventh Circuit Reverses Grant of Qualified Immunity for Corrections Officer and Corrections Sergeant in Medical Deliberate Indifference Suit

November 15, 2017

On September 18, 2017, the Seventh Circuit in Orlowski v. Milwaukee County, 872 F.3d 417 (7th Cir. 2017), reversed a District Court that had previously awarded summary judgment for a Milwaukee County Corrections Officer and Sergeant in a claim brought by the Estate of an inmate that died of a methadone overdose in the Milwaukee County Jail.  The Seventh Circuit found that questions of fact existed that precluded summary judgment in favor of the two officers on the Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim of the Estate.

In the early morning of November 22, 2007, Alexander Orlowski would not wake up for his shift in the kitchen. Nothing unusual was noted during the evening rounds by the correctional officers on duty. The corrections officer responsible for rounding up the inmates responsible for breakfast noticed that Orlowski would not wake up, was breathing abnormally, and would stop breathing at times. Another inmate was also unable to wake Orlowski. The corrections officer noted in his log book that the inmate appeared to have a sleeping or breathing disorder, and difficulty breathing. The officer also called the on-duty sergeant and related his observations. The sergeant denied receiving this information. The officer testified that he was informed that the inmate would be spoken to if and when he awakened. Orlowski slept through breakfast, and over two hours later was found unresponsive in his bed where he had remained. Orlowski died of an apparent methadone overdose. Orlowski’s father and the Estate filed suit against the officer, the sergeant, and Milwaukee County, alleging that the actions taken by the officer and the sergeant were deliberately indifferent to the inmate’s serious medical need.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the officer and the sergeant on all of the claims by the plaintiffs. The Seventh Circuit reversed as to the deliberate indifference claim. The Seventh Circuit stated that if the corrections officer, in fact, had related the information to his sergeant as he had testified, he may have been entitled to qualified immunity, but the sergeant denied receiving this information. The evidence established that the officer had observed Orlowski have trouble breathing while sleeping. The officer knew, and told his sergeant, “that Orlowski was breathing irregularly, appeared to have a severe sleeping disorder, and could not be woken up. Any reasonable officer would know that these observations indicated a serious medical condition and the law required them to seek medical attention.” The Seventh Circuit found that Orlowski’s condition instead went ignored, and he died three hours later.

Orlowski had not previously been diagnosed with sleep apnea, a drug overdose, or another serious medical condition. However, the Seventh Circuit found that there was a dispute over whether the observations by the corrections officer would have made the seriousness of Orlowski’s condition known to a layperson, i.e. Orlowski’s lack of breathing and inability to awaken. Similarly, the sergeant’s failure to call for medical attention and questions of fact regarding whether and to what extent Orlowski’s condition was communicated precluded summary judgment in his favor as well.

Orlowski v. Milwaukee County et al

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