Kentucky Supreme Court upholds ruling in case over inmate's death

By Karen Kidd | Nov 15, 2018

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham  

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Legal Newsline) – Over a lone justice's dissent that concerns over qualified immunity remain in the case of a 36-year-old woman who died in a Russell County detox cell in 2011, a Kentucky Supreme Court majority recently upheld a decision that granted summary judgment in the favor of jail personnel.

The state Supreme Court affirmed the Kentucky Court of Appeals' affirmation of the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants in the case, Russell County jail personnel, in the wrongful death case. The majority of justices ruled that even if a jury could reasonably determine the jail deputies had failed in their ministerial duties, the plaintiffs could not prove causation.

"Because there is no genuine issue of material fact concerning causation, summary judgment for the deputies was proper," the Supreme Court said in its 16-page opinion published Nov. 1.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham wrote the eight-page opinion in which Chief Justice John D. Minton, Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes, Justice Daniel J. Venters and Justice Samuel T. Wright III concurred. Justice Michelle M. Keller dissented in part.

Justice Laurance B. VanMeter, who dissented in the Kentucky Court of Appeals decision to affirm the trial court's decision in the case while he was on the bench there, did not sit on this case when it arrived before the state Supreme Court.

Litigation by Nicole Peterson, administratix for the Peggy McWhorter estate, and Wanda Russell, on behalf of McWhorter's minor children, claims Russell County Detention Center officials were negligent when McWhorter died of a hydrocodone overdose in a detox cell in December 2011. McWhorter was in the jail at the time serving a weekend of her sentence for a drug-related second offense DUI conviction.

Jail officials claimed they didn't know at the time that McWhorter was under the influence of drugs and that she'd been placed in the detox cell because inmates serving sentences on weekends often are placed in detox cells. McWhorter "denied having ingested any dangerous amount or mixture of alcohol or drugs" when she was admitted that day, the background portion of the opinion said.

McWhorter was housed with two other detainees in the detox cell, where she "announced her intent to 'sleep off her weekend'," the opinion said. It is unclear exactly when in the night she died, according to the opinion.

At issue in the subsequent litigation was what duties jail personnel owe in protecting inmates in custody.

Russell Circuit Court later granted summary judgment in favor of jail personnel, a decision affirmed by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which McWhorter's estate and her children appealed.

In her dissent, Keller said the trial court "failed to elucidate the record with reasoning as to its grant of summary judgment" and that the majority on the Supreme Court acknowledged the main issue in the appeal remains concern over qualified immunity.

"Yet, rather than simply remanding to the trial court for further proceedings, a majority of this Court has sounded the death knell for Peterson's entire case," Keller wrote in her dissent. "The majority states that 'it is clear from the record' that Peterson's case will fail in proving causation. It is impossible to know this fact for certain at this stage of the litigation."

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