Coronavirus in our Jails? Who Is Liable?

Coronavirus in our Jails? Who Is Liable?

The recent COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is causing lawyers, governments and the private sector to grapple with new legal issues every day. Nursing homes aren’t allowing family members to visit, some jails are now faced with deadly coronavirus outbreaks and businesses are balancing privacy with forcing employees to go home even though it is uncertain whether or not they have been infected with the virus. 

The newest legal issue? Jail and prison inmates who may have been infected with coronavirus. It is a critically important issue for inmates who don’t have the ability to practice “socially distancing”.

Mahany Law Investigating Coronavirus at the Trumbull County Jail (Ohio)

Some pundits say that Americans commit at least four crimes per day. Our laws have become so complex that many otherwise good people are technically committing crimes. Others commit obvious crimes, often relatively minor such as disorderly conduct or writing bad checks. No matter what you may think of the death penalty, there is universal agreement that most people in jail don’t deserve to die.

Consider those that are awaiting trial. If you believe in our Constitution, you believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. Dozens of inmates not even convicted of a crime die needlessly in jail every day.  According to the New York Times, on any given day there are roughly 450,000 people in jail on short term stays, most of them awaiting their arraignment.

How does all of this jive with the increasing number of inmates in jail with coronavirus?

Trumbull County (Ohio) Sheriff Paul Monroe announced on March 13th that visitation at the county jail has been suspended for 21 days. According to media reports, the county is taking that action to prevent the spread of coronavirus into the jail. The jail death and injury lawyers at Mahany Law believe coronavirus is already in the jail.  We are already investigating an anonymous claim that an inmate contracted the deadly virus while in jail.

If there is one inmate with the virus, there are probably many more.

For many lawyers, judges and regulators, inmates in jail with coronavirus raise many thorny legal issues. Foremost is who is responsible for inmates who contract coronavirus while in jail? In our opinion, it is almost always the jail and its medical provider.

Medical services in Trumbull County are provided by an outside vendor. It’s like that in most American jails and prisons. Many facilities now put the care and health of inmates out to bid and its usually the one with the lowest bid.

Coronavirus and Jail Inmates

According to the Tribune Chronicle, medical services at the Trumbull County Jail are provided by Dr. Phillip Malvasi. (Dr. Malvasi and Trumbull County were sued in 2017 in a medical neglect wrongful death case unrelated to the current coronavirus pandemic.)

As a general rule, inmates are entitled to adequate medical care. The standard of care varies somewhat depending on whether the inmate was awaiting trial or had already been sentenced. If already sentenced, inmate care is governed by the 8th Amendment which protects against “cruel and unusual punishment.” To prevail on an 8th Amendment claim, the inmate must show the defendants acted with deliberate indifference. That is quite a high standard although the standards are often different for inmates awaiting trial and those cared for by private healthcare providers.

The question of liability is often factual as well. Is it likely that the inmate had coronavirus before incarceration? Did he become infected by a family member during a contact visit? Did she become infected because of close proximity with other infected inmates?

We recently saw coronavirus race through a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. The disease killed 19 residents. While most inmates are probably in better health than those in nursing homes, our prison population is rapidly aging as well and many inmates suffer from chronic health issues or have not been regularly seen by a physician.

The rules for bringing claims against jailers and jail medical staff vary greatly from state to state. Some states give inmates or their families just a few months to file what is known as a tort claim notice. The rules governing immunities enjoyed by jailers also vay from state to state. Sometimes it is possible to file a federal civil rights claim even if it is too late to sue in state court.

Medical malpractice and death cases against jails are very complex. Often, we also run into juror bias – some folks are predisposed against inmate claims. No one likes to acknowledge it but is a factor in many jurisdictions.

Coronavirus cases are new. There is no case law. No jury verdicts (and not likely to be any for several years). All that said, we firmly believe that jails and jail medical staff have a duty to keep inmates safe. Readers of this blog have the luxury of deciding when and how to practice “social distancing.” We can purchase masks, handwash frequently and purchase hand sanitizer. Inmates do not have these luxuries. They are 100% dependent on their jailers to keep them safe. If our experience is any indicator, jails and jail medical staff are ill equipped for this mission.

As I write this post, there are 329 prisoners at the Trumbull County Jail in Warren, Ohio. The facility was designed to only hold 286. Social distancing is improbable, even for elderly and at risk inmates. There are measures jails can take, however.

We applaud Sheriff Paul Monroe’s actions in suspending visitations. We believe his actions, however, are too little, too late. As I write this, there are already rumors of  suspected cases at the Rikers Island correctional complex in New York City. (New York City is denying the rumors.)

Did You or a Family Member Contract Coronavirus While in Jail?

Our jail injury lawyers are currently investigating claims that inmates contracted coronavirus while in jail. While there are many variables to these cases, we are most interested in inmates who died or suffered permanent injuries as the result of exposure to coronavirus while in jail. (We also are interested in any claims of prison staff who died or suffered permanent injuries as the result of coronavirus contracted in jail although proving where the virus was contracted will be more difficult. Typically, staff claims are considered workers compensation claims.)

For more information, please visit our jail medical neglect information page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by email at [hidden email].

Although we try and answer every call, we are often overwhelmed and can’t return every call. Please be sure you leave a detailed message and note that we limit our practice to wrongful death, very serious injury cases, inmate miscarriages and sexual assaults by prison staff.

*About Brian Mahany. Brian is both a former corrections officer and police officer. Brian uses his training and experience to cut through bureaucratic bs and government coverups.

We do not believe that all cops and guards are bad people. We do not hesitate, however, to vigorously prosecute cases where officers and medical staff use excessive force or fail to provide adequate care. Everyone has a right to expect quality care, respect and dignity.

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