By Christopher Zoukis
The top state court in Oklahoma has decided inmates, and their survivors cannot sue county jails in the state, or their contracted health care providers, over health care treatment or non-treatment, even if not providing the care or the poor quality of medical care provided, could have amounted to a violation of the inmate’s constitutional rights.
The decision handed down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court came December 4 as it considered questions of legal liability arising from a pair of tort cases filed in federal court by the estates of two inmates who died in county jails, allegedly at least in part as a result of negligence of the jail, its employees, or its contractors providing healthcare services.
In Foutch v. Turn Key Health, Russell Foutch, 49, died in the Creek County jail in September 2017 while serving a six-year sentence for drug and weapon offenses; at the time, he was in the county jail, rather than state prison, because he was awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge due to driving across a state highway median line and crashing his pickup into another vehicle.
The lawsuit filed by Foutch’s survivors alleged jail staff had observed him repeatedly pass out, cough up blood and foam at the mouth, but left him unattended by jail staff and staff of Turn Key, the largest provider of medical care services to county jails in Oklahoma. The medical examiner’s report said Foutch died of a blood clot in his lungs, exacerbated by pneumonia.
Randall Barrios, 59, committed suicide in November 2017 while in another county jail; he was found hanged in a supply closet at the jail. His survivors filed a federal lawsuit (Barrios v. Haskell County Public Facilities Authority) claiming the jail had been negligent in hiring and supervising staff who should have recognized and treated his mental health issues.
In both cases, a federal trial judge asked the top Oklahoma court to rule on whether state law on the tort immunity of the state government and its agents or contractors extended to healthcare that fails to meet reasonable standards of care. With only a single dissent, the court held that Oklahoma law did not authorize such lawsuits, even though the state’s own constitution has provisions that mirror the federal constitutional amendments.
Under settled Oklahoma law, and principles of federalism, the state gets to set the limits of what liability it will open itself to, and a state law, the Governmental Tort Claims Act, has long given broad immunity to the state government, local entities, and their agents and contractors acting within the scope of their authority.
Plaintiffs in the two recent cases asked the state high court to allow lawsuits, based on the court’s 2013 decision in Bosh v. Cherokee County Governmental Building Authority, which ruled an inmate severely beaten by a guard in a county jail could bring a tort lawsuit against the prison if the inmate’s constitutional rights had been violated.
The state high court’s recent decision held governmental immunity still applied, even for constitutional violations, because the legislature soon after the Bosh decision by amending the Governmental Torts Claims Act to close off such liability.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.