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Harper v. Daviess County, Kentucky

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Owensboro Division

February 15, 2018

LANA MICHELE HARPER, Administratrix and Personal Representative of the Estate of Chanson Spencer Morrow, Deceased, et al. PLAINTIFFS


          Joseph H. McKinley, Jr., Chief Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the Court on two motions for summary judgment. The first motion has been brought by “the River Valley defendants:” Green River Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board d/b/a River Valley Behavioral Health (“River Valley”) and Rebecca Moorman. (DN 49.) The second motion has been brought by “the County defendants:” Daviess County, Kentucky; David Osborne, individually and in his official capacity as the Daviess County Jailer; Chad Payne, individually and in his official capacity as an officer, employee, and/or agent of the Daviess County Detention Center; and David “Luke” Boarman, individually and in his official capacity as an officer, employee, and/or agent of the Daviess County Detention Center. (DN 59.) These matters are ripe for decision.

         I. Background

         This matter arises from the death of Chanson Spencer Morrow while an inmate at the Daviess County Detention Center. Morrow was arrested on February 19, 2014 and charged with first-degree assault after allegedly shooting his sister's boyfriend in the chest. (Arrest Citation [DN 59-3] at 2.) After being booked into the detention center, Deputy Jailer Joseph Stone had Morrow complete the “Standard Medical/Mental Health” questionnaire, in which Morrow indicated he suffered from depression but had never attempted suicide and was not currently thinking about it. (Questionnaire [DN 59-5] at 2.) He was initially classified as a “high-risk” inmate based upon the assault being a “high-profile crime” and rumors of other inmates wanting to harm him. (Dep. Osborne [DN 59-9] at 21:10-22.) He was also placed on suicide watch around 5:45 p.m. after Stone received a recommendation to do so from the Kentucky Jail Mental Health Crisis Network. (Episode Report [DN 59-8] at 2-3.) While three detention center staff members were dressing him in suicide prevention attire, Morrow stated, “Would you please just shoot me in the head?” (Incident Report [DN 59-10] at 2.) Later that evening, from 11:45 to 11:52 p.m., Morrow was interviewed by defendant Moorman, an outpatient therapist employed by defendant River Valley. Moorman determined that Morrow did not need to be on suicide watch for the next 48 hours, as he denied having any suicidal intentions and reported having a supportive family, to which he expected to return after getting out of jail the next day. (Moorman Report [DN 59-13] at 2-5; Dep. Moorman [DN 59-12] at 37:7-38:16.) He was removed from a suicide watch cell and taken to a high-risk cell based upon his initial classification. (Dep. Jones [DN 59-20] at 10:1-9.)

         As a high-risk inmate with no other individuals in his cell, Morrow was subject to checks by detention center staff at least once every hour. (Dep. Osborne [DN 59-9] at 20:13-17.) At the time of Morrow's death on February 20, defendant Boarman was responsible for checking Morrow's cell. (Dep. Boarman [DN 59-22] at 46:16-51:6.) Electronic records indicate that Boarman conducted checks on Morrow at 3:11 p.m., 4:23 p.m., 4:54 p.m., and 5:33 p.m. (Id.; Log Report [DN 69-1] at 1, 3-5.) The parties agree that surveillance footage also shows Boarman having a conversation with Morrow at 5:42 p.m., as well as Morrow having a conversation with another inmate at 5:47 p.m. and 5:50 p.m.

         Boarman's next check of the cell occurred at 6:30 p.m. (Dep. Osborne [DN 59-9] at 56:10-16; Log Report [DN 69-1] at 6.) However, Boarman did not look into the cell; he used a device provided to him by the detention center to create an electronic log of his visit to the cell, but he never actually looked through the window of the cell to ensure that Morrow was not in any distress. (Dep. Osborne [DN 59-9] at 54:7-18; Dep. Boarman [DN 59-22] at 60:8-14.) At 7:15 p.m., detention center staff members were alerted that Morrow was hanging from a sheet in his cell. (Dep. Payne [DN 59-21] at 49:2-14.) Attempts were made to resuscitate Morrow, but he ultimately died from his injuries. (Nurse's Report [DN 59-7] at 2-3.)

         Three plaintiffs have brought the present action: Lana Harper, as administratrix and personal representative of the estate of Morrow; Ashley Lambert, as custodian and legal guardian of O.K.M., a minor child of Morrow; and Jessica Peak, as custodian and legal guardian of K.A.P., a minor child of Morrow. (Pls.' Amend. Compl. [DN 11] at 1.) While they have asserted federal and state-law claims against numerous defendants, the plaintiffs have conceded many claims against the County defendants. (Pls.' Response [DN 69] at 1-2.) The only claims remaining are as follows: § 1983 deliberate indifference against Boarman (in his individual capacity), Moorman, and River Valley (Count II); intentional infliction of emotional distress against Moorman and River Valley (Count III); negligence/wrongful death against Boarman (in his individual capacity) (Count IV), Moorman and River Valley (Count VII); and § 1983 failure to train and supervise against River Valley (Counts V and VI.)[1] Boarman has moved for summary judgment as to all remaining claims against him (DN 59), and the River Valley defendants have moved for summary judgment as to the negligence/wrongful death claim.[2] (DN 49.)

         II. Standard of Review

         Before the Court may grant a motion for summary judgment, it must find that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of specifying the basis for its motion and identifying that portion of the record that demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies this burden, the non-moving party thereafter must produce specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue of fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986).

         Although the Court must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the non-moving party must do more than merely show that there is some “metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require the non-moving party to present specific facts showing that a genuine factual issue exists by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         III. Discussion

         A. River Valley Defendants

         The Court begins with the motion by the River Valley defendants. They argue that summary judgment is appropriate on the negligence/wrongful death claim, as the plaintiffs have failed to offer any expert testimony as to the standard of care Moorman and River Valley were expected to meet. The plaintiffs allege that the River Valley defendants “owed Chanson Spencer Morrow the duty of reasonable mental health and/or medical care, ” and they “breached this duty of care by negligently assessing Mr. Morrow as a moderate suicide risk.” (Pls.' Amend. Compl. [DN 11] ¶¶ 70-71.) These allegations pertain to whether the River Valley defendants breached a duty of care borne out of their professional relationship with Morrow. “In professional negligence cases, the standard of care ‘is typically measured by the standard of conduct customary in the profession under the circumstances.'” Lowe v. CSL Plasma Inc., 2016 WL 1090631, at *2 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 18, 2016) (quoting Boland-Maloney Lumber Co., Inc. v. Burnett, 302 S.W.3d 680, 686 (Ky. Ct. App. 2009)). “Establishing the standard of care typically requires expert testimony.” Id. (citations omitted). The plaintiffs have offered no expert who will opine as to the standard of care for mental health professionals conducting evaluations to determine the risk of self-harm.

         The plaintiffs argue that expert testimony is not required, as lay jurors can understand the standard of care in this case and do not need to hear expert testimony in order to render an appropriate verdict. See Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc. v. Miller, 177 S.W.3d 676, 681 (Ky. 2003). This argument is based upon the time stamps on Moorman's report that recommended removing Morrow from suicide watch for 48 hours, as it indicates she spent seven minutes interviewing him before reaching this conclusion. (Moorman Report [DN 59-13] at 2-5.) The plaintiffs argue that lay jurors will be able ...

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