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Detainee Death Blamed on City’s Inaction

A Richmond U.S. District Court says the estate of a pretrial detainee who suffered from schizophrenia and who died in Richmond City Jail from hyperthermia resulting from “environmental heat exposure” has stated a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the city based on its failure to adequately maintain a safe, sanitary jail; but the court dismisses plaintiff’s complaint against the city based on the sheriff’s policies and procedures in operating the jail.

Plaintiff’s complaint does not allege that anyone else other than decedent has fallen ill due to the “oppressive heat and underventilation” at the city jail. The city argues the complaint fails to allege an official custom or policy and alleges, at best, an isolated, unprecedented incident occurred.

The city’s argument ignores the settled rule that housing inmates in a grossly overcrowded and unsanitary facility violates the inmates’ rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Here, although plaintiff’s complaint does not explicitly allege that other inmates have become sick from overheated and poorly ventilated conditions at the jail, it does allege that the city, by and through its policymakers, knew of the inhumane conditions at the jail and repeatedly failed to address and rectify the situation. Plaintiffs allege the sheriff repeatedly has made public comments, pre-dating and post-dating the death cited here, concerning the jail’s dangerous heat problem. Municipal inaction can constitute an official custom or policy; the complaint here alleges the city displayed continued inaction in the face of a known history of widespread constitutional deprivations. Municipal inaction, even standing alone and without a pattern of actual sickness or disease transmission, can constitute a cognizable “official policy or custom” for purposes of a civil rights action.

Decedent, housed in the jail as a pretrial detainee, certainly stands in a special relationship with the city. An overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary jail facility has the manifest propensity to spread disease. Because of the patent likelihood of injury to an identifiable group of persons standing in a special relationship to the city, the complaint reasonably characterizes the city’s inaction as an official policy or custom.

In addition to the claim that the medical examiner attributed decedent’s death to environmental heat exposure, plaintiff also maintains that jail personnel observed that, at the time decedent was discovered to be unresponsive, his jail cell was approximately 30 degrees warmer than the surrounding environment. Plaintiff avers that temperatures in the jail have reached extraordinary levels for a number of years, oftentimes approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Plaintiff alleges the sheriff explicitly recognized the heat discrepancies inside the jail.

Plaintiff clearly asserts the city had knowledge of the excessive temperatures and lack of ventilation within the jail and nevertheless failed to take appropriate measures to abate the conditions. At this stage of the litigation, plaintiff has sufficiently alleged facts supporting a

claim that the city exhibited deliberate indifference to the risk of harm created by the jails excessive climate.

Sleeper, Adm’r v. City of Richmond (Hudson) No. 3:12cv441, Aug. 16, 2012; USDC at Richmond, Va. VLW 012-3-407, 17 pp.

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