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Hearst v. Mason

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 24, 2014

LINDA G. HEARST, Administratrix of the ESTATE OF ROBERT W. HEARST, V. DECEASED, Plaintiff,


TERRENCE F. McVERRY, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT UNDER FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 56 (ECF No. 27) filed by Defendants Bradley Mason ("Mason"), Brian Lauver ("Lauver"), Steve Gage ("Gage"), John Doe No. 4, and the County of McKean (the "County"), with brief in support (ECF No. 28). Linda G. Hearst ("Plaintiff"), the Administratix of the Estate of Robert W. Hearst, V. ("Decedent"), filed a brief in opposition (ECF No. 36). The factual record has been developed through Defendants' concise statement of material facts ("CSMF") (ECF No. 29), Plaintiff's responsive CSMF (ECF No. 35), and Defendants' reply to Plaintiff's CSMF (ECF No. 40). The Court heard oral argument from counsel on the motion on March 11, 2014. Accordingly, the motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

This is a tragic case. Decedent was arrested in September 2009 and detained in the McKean County Jail ("Jail") after not having posted bail. The next month, Decedent received a disciplinary infraction and as a result was transferred out of the general Jail population and into an isolation cell. He remained in the isolation cell until he committed suicide in December 2009.

On the night of December 8 into the early morning of December 9, corrections officers Lauver, Chapell, and Gage were assigned to the unit in which Decedent's cell was located. Around midnight, while making his rounds, Chapell observed the Decedent awake in his cell with the lights on. Around the same time, Lauver walked by and observed the Decedent at a table in his cell either reading or writing in a notepad. At approximately 1:20 or 1:30 a.m., Gage noticed that Decedent was still awake at his table. This was the last time Decedent was seen alive. Between this time and 5:08 a.m., the three officers continued to make rounds every 15 to 20 minutes. They did not, however, actually look through Decedent's cell window or make any other efforts to observe Decedent in his cell. They testified that the lights in Decedent's cell were off throughout the night, and they did not believe that anything unusual was going on.

At approximately 5:08 a.m., Chapell and Lauver approached Decedent's cell to give him his morning medications.[1] Lauver had the control room operator open the cell door, entered the cell, and discovered Decedent hanging from the top bunk of his bed by a noose fashioned from a bed sheet. Upon discovering Decedent, Lauver turned around and asked Chapell to come into the cell. When Chapell entered, he called out Decedent's name and got no response. He also checked for a pulse and felt no heartbeat. The officers then tried to untie the sheet from around Decedent's neck. When that failed, Lauver left the cell to retrieve a cutting tool from the control room, where Gage was stationed throughout the incident. (Gage testified that he was required to remain in the control room at all times, as the room could not be left unattended.) Meanwhile, Chapell left the cell to call 911. He also notified Warden Mason, the State Police, and certain unnamed assistant wardens. Shortly thereafter, Lauver returned to the cell, cut the sheet down, and lowered Decedent's body to the floor.

At the time, the Jail's Suicide Prevention and Intervention Program Policy provided, in pertinent part, that any staff member who discovers an inmate attempting to commit suicide or who has attempted suicide should "never wait for medical personnel to arrive before entering a cell or before initiating appropriate life saving measures, (i.e., first aid and CPR)." Defs.' Ex. Q at 7 (ECF No. 32-17) (emphasis in original). The policy also provided that

[u]pon entering the cell or other inmate living area, correctional staff will never presume that the victim is dead. Rather, life saving measures will be initiated immediately... Should the victim lack vital signs, correctional officer or other staff will initiate CPR until relieved by medical personnel.

Id. The Jail also had a policy for dealing with unresponsive inmates, which required an officer, "[u]pon discovery of an unresponsive inmate (believed to be expired), " to "begin applicable first aid or CPR procedures." Defs.' Ex. R at 1 (ECF No. 32-18). Defendants Lauver, Chapell, and Gage each testified that they had received training on or at least been instructed to read these policies.[2]

Nevertheless, after cutting Decedent down, neither Lauver nor Chapell attempted to perform CPR, though they were trained to do so. Nor did either of them retreive the automatic external defibrillator ("AED") from the nearby control room. Lauver testified that he did not attempt to administer aid "[b]ecause it was very obvious that it was well beyond that point... [Decedent] was blue and cold and, you know, stiff at that point." Lauver's Dep. at 35:5-9 (ECF No. 32-11). Likewise, Chapell testified that he thought (wrongly) that he had the ability under the Jail's policies to make a determination as to whether to attempt CPR. Because "[t]here were no signs of life" when Chapell entered the cell, "[he] presumed [Decedent] was dead." Chapell's Dep. at 12:13-14 (ECF No. 32-10). Chapell also testified that Decedent's skin was cold to the touch and "tight, " and his neck, face, and arms had turned a purplish color. Id. at 19:4-17. Thus, he believed Decedent was beyond resuscitation. Plaintiff disputes that Decedent's body was cold at this time and notes that the autopsy report indicated that Decedent's body was still "slightly warm" approximately nine hours after it was found.

An emergency medical technician ("EMT") arrived at the Jail at 5:22 a.m. At that time, the scene was being processed by the State Police, so the EMT was not given immediate access to Decedent's body, which remained in the cell. The EMT was able to see the body from a distance, however, and observed deep cyanosis from the head to shoulders and dependent lividity along the left side of Decedent's body.[3] When the EMT was permitted to enter the cell at approximately 5:27 a.m., he did not attempt to administer CPR. The County coroner pronounced Decedent dead soon thereafter, listing the time of death as 5:28 a.m.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff, as the Administratrix of Decedent's Estate and on behalf of herself and Decedent's three minor children, initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 on December 7, 2011, by filing an 11-count Complaint against Warden Mason, John Does Nos. 1 through 4, and McKean County (ECF No. 1). On February 7, 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the entire action on a number of grounds (ECF No. 5). After hearing oral argument on the motion, former Chief United States District Judge Sean McLaughlin ...

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