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Eleventh Circuit upholds district court's denial of qualified immunity to prison warden who allegedly ordered hospital staff to disconnect life support of critically ill inmate


On October 2, 2018, in Estate of Marquette F. Cummings Jr. v. Davenport, No. 17-13999, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court ruling denying an Alabama prison warden’s motion to dismiss, on the grounds of qualified immunity, a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights complaint brought by the estate of a deceased inmate. The inmate had been stabbed in the eye by a fellow prisoner and airlifted to the hospital in critical condition. The plaintiff alleged that the warden instructed the hospital that “no heroic measures” should be taken to save the inmate’s life, authorized the entry of a do-not-resuscitate order and told hospital staff to stop dispensing medication and to disconnect the life support system. The inmate’s mother allegedly protested that she wanted her son kept on life support because he was still breathing and responding to verbal commands, but the hospital staff told her it was the warden’s decision.

In support of his motion to dismiss, the warden argued that his alleged actions fell within his discretionary authority because as a prison warden it was his responsibility to supervise and control the care and custody of inmates including their medical care. The Eleventh Circuit noted that to establish that the challenged actions were within the scope of his discretionary authority, a defendant must show that those actions were (1) undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties, and (2) within the scope of his authority.” In other words, the government employee must have been (a) performing a legitimate job-related function (that is, pursuing a job-related goal), (b) through means that were within his power to utilize.

See Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1265 (11th Cir. 2004). The Court then looked to Alabama law to see if the warden was granted the authority to make end-of-life medical decisions for inmates without an advance designation. The Court concluded that the Alabama Natural Death Act contains a tiered decision-making system, including judicially appointed guardians, family members and medical committees, but makes no provision for prison wardens not specifically tasked by a court to make such decisions.

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