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Deputy Gets Qualified Immunity in Denial of Medical Treatment Case

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on January 26, 2016 5:59 AM

A deputy's decision to cart an arrestee to the county jail instead of the hospital following major hand injuries was validated by the Eighth Circuit. The deputy will enjoy qualified immunity for his actions. The plaintiff sued under theories of violations of his constitutional rights.

Apparently, under the circumstances, a "layman" like the officer himself would not have been obviously alerted of the serious need for prompt medical treatment.

Punch Your Own Car...You'll Feel Better

The suit arises out of facts that took place in March of 2012. One afternoon, the plaintiff Bailey left his friend's house in a fit of anger and punched out his rearview mirror and windshield, sustaining major injuries to his hand. He drove off until he ran out of gas. He called for emergency assistance.

Bailey was 18 years old at the time and had been drinking that day. He submitted to EMT treatment for his hand. When Deputy Feltmann arrived at the scene, the plaintiff's hand was already bandaged up, though Feltmann could see blood soaking through. He was informed by the plaintiff how he injured himself. Paramedics advised Feltmann that Bailey should be driven to the hospital. Feltmann instead drove Bailey to the jail.

Over the course of days, Bailey turned out to only have sustained relatively minor injuries to his hand despite punching his windshield. Regardless, he sued Feltmann under a theory that Feltmann's decision to drive him to jail first amounted to an unconstitutional denial of emergency medical care.

"Deliberate Indifference"

Bailey sued under the proper federal statutes to get the case in federal district court. His case was dismissed.

The circuit eventually affirmed that dismissal. One of Bailey's theories implicated legal issues borrowed from the Eighth Amendment and revolving around due process. The case would boil down to whether or not Deputy Feltmann's decision was, under the circumstances, a "deliberate[ly] indifferen[t]" disregard of Bailey's medical condition. It was not.

Carpenter v. Gage

The appropriate language can be found in the case Carpenter v Gage where the proper due process violation test is laid out. There is a due process violation under Carpenter is the officer denies medical treatment to a patient whose injury is "objectively serious" (as in a doctor's diagnosis) or "so obvious that even a layperson would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor's attention."

Re "Objectively Serious"

In the facts, Bailey did not present any diagnoses from any doctor that established major damages, physical or pecuniary. In fact, it appears that his injuries ended up being pretty minor, all said.

Re "Layperson" Prong

With regards to the "layperson" prong, the Court sided with Feltmann and noted that Feltmann's observation of blood soaking through Bailey's bandages did not constitute an obvious need for medical treatment. Feltmann reasonably assumed that the EMTs already administered the proper medical treatment; and bleeding appeared to be controlled. Thus, no due process violation took place and qualified immunity was proper.

Reflections on the Carpenter Test

One chronological aspect of the Carpenter test is the time factor. The two prongs mentioned are medical objectivity and seriousness; and the "layperson" prong. The problem with the first sufficient conditional is that it requires the passage of time before a doctor can even physically examine and injury and give a diagnosis. Thus, a deputy in Feltmann's position would have not enjoyed qualified immunity if it later turned out that a doctor found that the plaintiff's injuries were actually much more severe than would have been obvious at the time! So, Carpenter is still rather porous as far as tests go.

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