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Peet v. Beard

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 12, 2015

LAWRENCE PEET, Plaintiff
v.
JEFFREY A. BEARD, et al., Defendants

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Carlson, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION AND STATEMENT OF THE CASE

On March 16, 2008, at around 10:00 p.m., Lawrence Peet, an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections previously housed at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, suffered the second of two seizures that day while he was lying on his bunk, which was situated next to a scalding hot radiator. After his second seizure of the day, Peet collapsed out of his bed and became trapped against the radiator, with his face in direct contact with the burning surface. The record indicates that a frantic scene then ensued within the cell and on the cell block, with Peet’s cellmate screaming for help and other inmates causing a commotion. Nevertheless, according to some evidence in the record, the response to the emergency was slow, and it took anywhere from five to ten minutes before corrections officers arrived at the cell door. Meanwhile, Peet was convulsing, spitting up blood, all the while with his face pinned against the radiator for as long as 15 minutes before corrections officers entered the cell and provided aid. Although the parties dispute whether corrections officers responded adequately under the circumstances, what is not disputed is that by the time correctional officers arrived, Peet’s face had been in direct contact with the radiator for several minutes, and the results were ghastly: Peet suffered extreme burns, facial disfigurement, and permanent blindness in his right eye. He required extensive hospitalization in a burn unit and had multiple surgeries, including skin grafts.

Peet commenced this civil action on March 3, 2010, asserting claims against more than 50 DOC officials and employees. Peet alleged that the defendants violated his constitutional rights through their deliberate indifference to his epileptic condition, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that their indifference resulted in Peet suffering his second seizure unsupervised in a cell, and resulted in Peet sustaining severe injury. Peet also alleged that the defendants violated his due process rights under a “state created danger” theory of liability, asserting that the defendants affirmatively acted in a manner that exposed to Peet a foreseeable and increased risk of serious harm that later ensued.

The parties subsequently engaged in extensive discovery. Following this process, and the exchange of expert reports, Peet agreed to dismiss all but five of the original defendants, whom he determined had direct involvement in the constitutional deprivations alleged. Following this stipulated dismissal, Peet continues to assert his claims against the former Superintendent of SCI-Camp Hill, John Palakovich; Unit Manager Renee Zobitne; Sergeant Scott Seese; and Corrections Officers David Pierre and Manda Steinour-Eger (collectively, the “defendants”). Peet seeks to hold Palakovich and Zobitne liable for the alleged constitutional violations based upon their asserted failures as supervisors, and their own deliberate indifference to policies and procedures that exacerbated his risk of injury. Peet’s claims against the remaining three defendants are based on his allegation that they were indifferent to the risk of harm that Peet faced by returning to his prison cell that contained a hot radiator after suffering a serious seizure; and that they responded in a dilatory and indifferent manner after Peet suffered the seizure that resulted in his severe injuries.

The remaining defendants have moved for summary judgment on Peet’s claims, and the motion is fully briefed. Upon consideration, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

On or around January 11, 2008, Lawrence Peet was transferred from the Lancaster County Jail to SCI-Camp Hill. During his initial intake at the state prison, Peet was subjected to a physical examination, after which it was noted that Peet was 5' 9" and weighed 360 pounds. He presented with a history of coronary artery disease, having suffered a heart attack in 1995. The records suggest that Peet had a constellation of serious medical challenges, as it was also noted that he suffered from hypertension, chronic venous insufficiency, obesity, and lymphedema. (Doc. 92, Ex. 4.)

On March 7, 2008, Peet suffered a seizure at SCI-Camp Hill. The seizure was serious enough that it required him to be transported from the prison to Holy Spirit Hospital for follow-up care. Also as of this date, a document prepared at SCI-Camp Hill indicated that around this time it was known that Peet suffered from “seizure disorder.” (Id., Ex. 6.)

While at Holy Spirit, Peet suffered another seizure that lasted approximately two minutes. (Id., Ex. 7.) Dr. Alan C. Teplis, who treated Peet, noted that Peet had a “history of seizure disorder.” Peet stayed at Holy Spirit under the care of physicians until March 11, 2008, when he was returned to SCI-Camp Hill. (Id., Ex. 8.) At this time, Peet was medically evaluated by staff at the prison, and was admitted to the infirmary and prescribed anti-seizure medication. (Id., Ex. 9.) The following day, Peet was discharged and returned to his cell on the prison’s A-block. Despite having Peet returned to his cell, Dr. Barry Beaven noted on Peet’s medical chart that he “need[ed] follow-up for seizures, ” and he requested Peet’s records from Holy Spirit. (Id., Ex. 10.)

Peet was housed in cell B1-16, which was located on the bottom tier of A-block. (Id., Ex. 11.) Peet was celled with Allen James Reeves, with Peet using the bottom bunk and Mr. Reeves having the top. The cell measured roughly 6' 10" in width by approximately 11' 5" in length. (Id., Ex. 13.) The cell also contained a radiator that was situated adjacent to Peet’s bunk. Evidence in the record indicates that the radiators in the cells at the prison would sometimes reach temperatures sufficient to allow inmates to boil water for coffee. (Doc. 92, Ex. 12, Dep. of Allen Reeves, at 33.)

On March 16, 2008, nine days after Peet suffered his first seizure that required his transfer to Holy Spirit Hospital, at approximately 7:15 p.m., Peet suffered another seizure while in his cell. At that time, Reeves was in the cell with Peet, and during his deposition described what he witnessed. Reeves attested that he was in his bunk reading a book when the entire bunk frame began shaking. (Id., Ex. 12, Reeves Dep. at 11-12.) Reeves hopped off the bed and saw that Peet’s “tongue was kind of hanging out of his mouth a little bit and his eyes were rolling back into his head.” (Id. at 12.) Reeves perceived that Peet required help, and thus got “on the door” and began banging on the gate and yelling down the tier in an effort to alert unit staff that there was an emergency that required immediate attention. (Id. at 12, 22-25.) During this time, Reeves heard other inmates also shouting and yelling, even cynically encouraging Reeves to simply “let [Peet] die.” (Id. at 23.) Reeves further testified that despite his shouting and the noise that was building in the unit, it took between five and ten minutes for corrections officers to reach the cell door. According to Reeves, it took as much as an additional 7 minutes before medical personnel arrived to render care.

Sergeant Scott Seese and Corrections Officers David Pierre and Amanda Steinour-Eger were on-duty on A-block from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on March 16, 2008. (Doc. 92, Ex. 14.) Sergeant Seese testified that he responded to Peet’s first seizure, and that when he encountered Peet he was “laying there with eyes wide open and kind of panting.” (Doc. 92, Ex. 15, Dep. of Scott Seese, at 26.) Thereafter, Nurse Jane Ann Snyder responded and assessed Peet in the cell for between 5 and 10 minutes, before Peet was taken by wheelchair to the dispensary for further follow-up and evaluation. (Doc. 92, Ex. 15, Seese Dep. at 27, 37; Ex. 17, Dep. of Jane Ann Snyder, at 84-86.)

Approximately 30 minutes later, Nurse Marcie Boyer determined that Peet could be returned to his cell via wheelchair. (Doc. 92, Ex. 18, Dep. of Marcie of Boyer, at 83, 85-86; Ex. 12, Reeves Dep. at 13, 28, 36; Ex. 15, Seese Dep. at 47, 64.) Reeves testified that he was surprised to see Peet return so soon after suffering a seizure that had left him looking “delirious.” (Id., Ex. 12, Reeves Dep. at 13.) Reeves expressed his own opinion that Peet might still require medical attention or at least supervision, but Reeves’s concerns were not persuasive, and Peet was returned to the cell. (Id. at 13, 28.) At this point, staff apparently departed.

Three hours later, at approximately 10:00 p.m., trouble struck when Peet suffered his second seizure of the day, and his second seizure in three hours. (Doc. 92, Ex. 20.) Reeves again felt the bunk shaking, and when he jumped down realized that Peet was in the midst of another fit. (Doc. 92, Ex. 12, Reeves Dep. at 13, 31-32.) During this seizure, however, Peet fell out of his own bunk and his head became wedged in the space between the bottom of his bunk and the hot radiator. (Id., at 14, 32-33.) Reeves tried to render assistance to his cellmate, but was unable to move Peet because of his size and weight and perhaps the way in which he was trapped. Reeves testified that Peet was shaking and spitting up blood. After attempting to help Peet for a minute, Reeves went to the door and began screaming and yelling to alert correctional staff about the emergency taking place in the cell. Once again, other inmates on the block created a loud commotion in response. (Id., at 14-15, 34, 61.)

Reeves testified that despite his yelling and the noise created by other inmates, it again took another 5 to 10 minutes for staff to respond - despite the fact that Peet had suffered a seizure just hours earlier. And the circumstances of this particular seizure were tragic due to Peet having become trapped against a scalding radiator until staff came to his assistance as many as 15 minutes after the seizure started. (Id. at 15, 60, 64.) After correctional officers first arrived, Reeves testified that they took no immediate action, allowing as many as 5 more minutes to elapse before they opened the cell door to provide assistance. (Id. at 15.) Thus, according to Reeves, Peet’s face remained pinned against the radiator for 15 minutes before it was removed and medical treatment could be provided. At this point, when the officers notified medical that Peet needed attention, Reeves said Peet “wasn’t moving anymore.” (Id.)

As it happens, only minutes before Peet suffered his second seizure, Sergeant Seese was making the final rounds of his shift before he finished work at 10:00 p.m. During rounds at approximately 9:50 p.m., Seese stopped by Peet’s cell and told him that he would notify the next shift about his medical condition and about the seizure he had suffered earlier that day. At that time, Seese recalls that Peet told him he felt “groggy”. (Doc. 92, Ex. 15, Seese Dep. at 28-29.) Seese then left to complete some end-of-shift paperwork. Approximately two minutes later, Seese heard that “a ruckus was going on back in the cellblock. Inmates were screaming, yelling, needed help.” (Id.)

According to Seese, he responded to the commotion within a minute of hearing yelling by other inmates and Reeves; his testimony is contradicted by that offered by Reeves, who claims it took at least five minutes before anyone arrived at the cell door. Seese states that he was the first staff member to arrive, and that he turned lights on in the unit and notified medical staff that an emergency required their assistance. (Id. at 42, 51-52, 81-82.) Seese stated that he could see Peet lying face down in the cell, and that it appeared the inmate might be vomiting blood, and had blood coming from his face. (Id.) Despite calling for medical attention and witnessing what appeared to be a seriously injured inmate, Seese did not enter the cell, but waited outside the cell for medical personnel to arrive. (Id.)

Nurses Douglas McKinney and Lynn Joseph Overbaugh responded to the block to provide emergency care. (Doc. 92, Ex. 16.) Nurse McKinney testified that when they arrived at the cell, Peet remained in the midst of a seizure, was nonresponsive, and was convulsing. (Doc. 92, Ex. 21, Dep. of Douglas McKinney, at 50-51.) After medical entered the cell, Peet was removed from the radiator, and was dragged out of the cell atop a sheet that had been tucked beneath him. (Id. at 35, 54-56, 58.) Peet’s seizure continued for another 3 to 4 minutes, during which time Nurse McKinney remained at a distance from Peet and phoned the dispensary for a gurney. (Id. at 61-62.)

Peet’s injuries were determined to be quite serious, and he was accordingly transported by ambulance to the Hershey Medical Center. During his transport, Peet reportedly seized again, as notes indicate that at that time he had been in the throes of a “tonic/colonic seizure.” (Doc. 92, Ex. 22.) One of the doctors at Hershey Medical Center, Dr. Daniel K. French, wrote notes indicating that Peet presented with severe burns sustained during the course of a seizure and contact with a radiator that lasted upwards of 30 minutes; though it is unclear how the doctor would have been capable of determining the duration of the contact. Dr. French noted that Peet had serious burns on the right side of his face, his left arm, his right eye, and had additionally suffered a C2 fracture. (Id., at 1-2.) During this initial assessment, it was determined that the severity of Peet’s burns necessitated a transfer to the Lehigh Valley Hospital Burn Center for proper care. It appears that corrections staff initially balked at Dr. French’s referral to the burn hospital, but relented after he insisted that such acute treatment was imperative. (Id., at 2-3.) According to Peet, the delay in his transfer subjected him to additional pain and suffering. (Doc. 90, at 10 n.5.)

Upon his admission at Lehigh Valley Hospital Burn Center, Peet was given last rites, though he did recover following a lengthy period of treatment and convalescence. Peet was treated at the facility for approximately six weeks, and was discharged on April 29, 2008. (Doc. 92, Ex. 24.) During his stay at the burn center, Peet had several surgeries performed on him to treat 2nd and 3rd degree burns, including skin grafts, which resulted in permanent scarring and loss of vision in his right eye. (Doc, 92, Ex. 25.)

Less than two years later, Peet initiated the instant action, alleging that the defendants’ decision to allow him to be placed unsupervised in a cell with a scalding radiator during a time when he had been suffering regular seizures constituted deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs of which the defendants were, or should have been aware; and that their response to his emergency situation following the second seizure also demonstrated deliberate indifference in the face of a desperate situation that resulted in Peet sustaining ghastly injuries. Peet also alleges that the defendants’ conduct was so egregious that it violated Peet’s substantive due process rights, as he claims that the defendants are liable under the state created danger doctrine because they created the harm, or enhanced a known risk of danger that ultimately caused Peet’s burn injuries.

Following discovery, the defendants have moved for summary judgment on all of Peet’s claims. The defendants contend that any serious risk of injury to Peet from being placed in a cell with a hot radiator was not foreseeable, and thus argue that based on the evidence in the record no jury could reasonably conclude that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to Peet’s medical needs or that they affirmatively increased Peet’s risk of suffering a foreseeable harm. The defendants also argue that the facts of record, taken in the light most favorable to Peet, do not support a claim that anyone responding to Peet’s emergent medical situation exhibited deliberate indifference, or responded in a dilatory or otherwise inappropriate manner. In large measure, the defendants not only defend their own conduct and the adequacy of their training and response, but they also blame Peet for failing to file grievances regarding his housing status if he actually believed it presented a danger in light of his condition, and they endeavor to argue that the fact that Peet did not file grievances about this matter prior to being badly injured is somehow dispositive of their own liability. Additionally, the defendants suggest that they must be protected from any liability because the decision to return Peet to his cell was one made by a nurse who is not even employed by the Department of Corrections. Finally, the defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity on all of Peet’s claims.

The parties have fully briefed the motion, which is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied with respect to Peet’s deliberate indifference claims, because the record evidence is replete with disputes that are relevant to a determination of whether the corrections officers on duty were deliberately indifferent in their care for Peet, and particularly with respect to their response to the incident. The record also contains evidence that, taken in the light most favorable to Peet, could support a finding of liability against defendants Palakovich and Zobitne. We also do not find that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on these claims.

In contrast, we find that Peet’s claims for due process violations under the state-created danger doctrine are not supported, as there is a lack of evidence that by returning Peet to his cell at the direction of medical, the defendants were affirmatively enhancing a foreseeable risk that Peet would suffer injury. Instead, the evidence establishes a disputed factual issue relating to Peet’s claims that the defendants were deliberately indifferent and failed to act, bur does not show that they affirmatively acted in a way that enhanced the risk to Peet.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides as follows:

A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense – or the part of each claim or defense – on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court should state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). For purposes of Rule 56, a fact is material if proof of its existence of nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Haybarger v. Laurence Cnty. Adult Prob. & Parole, 667 F.3d 408, 412 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). For an issue to be genuine, “all that is required is that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties’ differing versions of the truth at trial.” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49).

Accordingly, in support of a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that if the evidence of record were reduced to admissible evidence in court, it would be insufficient to allow the non-moving party to carry its burden of proof. See Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Provided the moving party has satisfied this burden, “its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). Instead, if the moving party has carried its burden, the non-moving party must then respond by identifying specific facts, supported by evidence, which show a genuine issue for trial, and may not rely upon the allegations or denials of its pleadings. See Martin v. Godwin, 499 F.3d 290, 295 (3d Cir. 2007); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

In adjudicating the motion, the court must view the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the opposing party, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of North America, Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992). Where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true. Id. Additionally, the court is not to decide whether the evidence unquestionably favors one side or the other, or to make credibility determinations, but instead must decide whether a fair-minded jury could return a ...


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