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Man Dies in Jail After Police Dog Bite, Family Can Sue Jail Staff

Prison interior. Jail cells and shadows, dark background. 3d illustration
By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on May 29, 2019 1:00 PM

People in the United States are guaranteed certain constitutional and statutory rights. And, if these rights are violated, the victim is entitled to pursue a civil action against the violator. While the rights also apply to prisoners, it can be harder for them and their families to pursue a lawsuit because government officials -- such as prison staff -- have qualified immunity. But, this immunity can be overcome in certain cases. For example, a Florida judge has allowed the family of a dead prisoner to continue with their lawsuit against prison medical staff.

How a Dog Bite Led to a Prisoner's Death

According to Orlando police, on August 6, 2015, Max Gracia was hiding in a lake after committing an armed robbery at a convenience store. Police sent in a dog, and during the struggle, Gracia was bitten on his hands and legs. Gracia was first admitted to a public hospital, and later taken to the county jail's infirmary. During his time in jail, Gracia's health quickly got worse, and he died four days after his arrest. According to an autopsy, the bite on one of Gracia's legs led to an E.coli infection, which led to a fatal blood infection. Officially, "Gracia died of septic shock with HIV as a likely contributing factor."

Proving Deliberate Indifference

In 2017, Gracia's parents filed a lawsuit against the jail's medical director, four nurses, and Orange County alleging that their son's worsening medical condition was ignored as a result of the "culture of neglect" at the facility. The plaintiffs later removed three of the nurses and the county from the lawsuit. According to Daniel Tilley, the legal director of ACLU of Florida, cases like this one require a plaintiff to prove there was deliberate indifference as a prerequisite to establishing the violation of a constitutional right.

In the court order issued this year, U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell stated that the medical director examined Gracia "an HIV-positive patient with a severe dog-bite wound and deliberately declined to play an active role in his subsequent treatment." This, according to the judge, was the "very essence of deliberate indifference," which is why he allowed the case to proceed to trial.

While this court order is a win for Gracia's family, this case is far from over. Not only does the court order simply allow the case to proceed to court, but the defendants have filed an appeal of this decision.

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