Jail Deaths Involving Pretrial Detainees: Arguing for a Less Demanding Standard of Proof in Cases of Medical Neglect

Federal civil rights cases involving the deaths of those confined in jail or prison can be analyzed under either the Eighth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” applies to the rights of convicted prisoners. The Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees “due process,” applies to the rights of those who have been arrested and placed in jail but who have not yet been convicted of a crime. These individuals are known as “pretrial detainees.”

When it comes to civil rights cases involving death or serious injury to pretrial detainees from medical neglect, the standards that apply under the Fourteenth Amendment have long been analyzed in the same way as the rights of convicted prisoners under the Eighth Amendment. In either situation, the standard of proof has long been a high one: the plaintiff must show that the death was caused by the “deliberate indifference” of those charged with the care and custody of the confined individual. To prove a constitutional violation, the law has long required that the plaintiff demonstrate that jail or prison officials knew of a serious medical issue and consciously disregarded it. This standard of proof, which has been applied regardless of whether a person is a convicted prisoner or a pretrial detainee, is significantly higher than proving mere negligence because it requires subjective knowledge of the confined individual’s serious medical condition and conscious disregard of that condition.

Recent developments in cases around the country suggest that knowledgeable lawyers may now be able to argue for a less demanding standard of proof in cases involving pretrial detainees. The argument is premised on a 2015 holding of the United States Supreme Court in a case called Kingsley v. Hendrickson. In that case, the Supreme Court held that that an objective standard applies to certain claims brought by pretrial detainees. Based on this case, at least two circuit courts have interpreted Kingsley as replacing the subjective “deliberate indifference” standard with a less-stringent “objective” standard.

As of 2017, several district courts (including courts in New York and California) have ruled that a subjective showing of deliberate indifference is no longer required in inadequate medical care cases brought by pretrial detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment. Based on these holdings, attorneys should consider urging lower courts to adopt this less demanding standard of proof. Doing so can help attorneys overcome defense motions to dismiss cases based on allegedly inadequate proof, and may also result in jury instructions that are more favorable to plaintiffs.

Knowledge of recent developments in case law is critical for lawyers who seek justice for those who have been victimized by inadequate medical care in jail. If you or a loved on has been the victim of inadequate medical care in jail (particularly inadequate medical care that leads to serious injury or death), consider consulting with an attorney who is experienced in handling civil rights cases involving inadequate medical care in jail. The attorneys at Budge and Heipt focus on such cases and will consult on the merits of these cases free of charge.

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.