Jail Death Cases: No Qualified Immunity for Private Healthcare Providers

Counties, towns and cities are increasingly turning to private companies to provide health care services to inmates at their jails.  When a private health care company agrees to provide health care services to jail inmates, the company and its employees (such as nurses and doctors) are assuming a public function and are responsible for complying with the United States Constitution.  The Constitution obligates providers — in this case, even private providers — to ensure minimally adequate medical care for serious medical conditions.  A failure to provide minimally adequate medical care may cause the providers to be constitutionally liable (under the 14th Amendment for pretrial detainees, and under the 8th Amendment for convicted prisoners) for any serious resulting harm.

In jail-death cases, one defense that is often raised is known as “qualified immunity.”  Qualified immunity can be used to shield a defendant from liability, even where he or she may have violated the Constitution, where a reasonable defendant would not have known from the case law that what he or she was doing (or failing to do) was constitutionally prohibited.  Defeating this defense can be one of the most important parts of the entire case.  When the defense is properly raised, the plaintiff’s attorney should thoroughly research the case law in order to show the judge factually similar cases that put the providers on notice that their conduct was prohibited.

Fortunately, a substantial body of case law supports the argument that privately-employed nurses and doctors working for companies that provide health care services to jails cannot even assert the defense of qualified immunity.  These cases reason that the polices surrounding qualified immunity simply do not apply in the case of private health care providers.  The defense is also unavailable to the private companies themselves, as well as the municipalities who contract with the private companies.  In other words, when a jail death occurs from constitutionally inadequate medical care by a private company, the court may reject the very ability of the defense to even argue the question of qualified immunity.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are well-advised to keep this important concept in mind, because defendants may try to assert the defense even where it should not be available.  By making the providers’ private status clear to the court, the court may be inclined to reject the defense at the very outset.

The law firm of Budge & Heipt handles cases involving death and serious injury from medical neglect in jail.  We have handled cases involving deadly alcohol withdrawal and withdrawal from prescription drugs including benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin and other similar benzos.  We have handled cases involving jail deaths and serious injuries from failure to treat significant heart conditions, bowel disease, infections, and other serious medical problems in jail.  If you or a loved one would like to discuss a case involving a jail death or serious injury, contact our office for a free consultation.  There is no cost or obligation to do so.


If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.