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Judge dismisses part of wrongful death suit stemming from prison heart attack

A federal judge has dismissed an Eighth Amendment complaint brought against employees of a Western Maryland prison accused of failing to provide adequate accommodations for an inmate’s medical issues which allegedly led to his fatal heart attack.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar ruled the family of Stephen P. Gardner did not show deliberate indifference toward Gardner.

An Eighth Amendment claim for inadequate medical treatment requires more than inadvertent failure or negligence in diagnosis and treatment, Bredar wrote last week. Plaintiffs must show a serious deprivation of a basic human need and that prison officials had a “sufficiently culpable state of mind,” he wrote, but the Gardner family’s allegations were “rooted in nothing more than speculation.”

Bredar did not dismiss the lawsuit’s negligence claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Andrew D. Freeman, an attorney representing the family, said he was disappointed but not surprised by Bredar’s ruling.

“We did and continue to believe we have a very strong negligence claim,” said Freeman, of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore. “We recognized in light of precedent that our constitutional claim was somewhat more challenging.”

Gardner suffered his third heart attack in July 2013 after working outside the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland during a heatwave. Gardner, who was serving a 97-month sentence for securities fraud, came to Maryland from a federal prison in Massachusetts. During his initial screening in Cumberland, a nurse noted Gardner’s cardiac history and prescribed medications but failed to indicate any special accommodations, including light duty work assignments. The recommendations were affirmed by at least two doctors at the facility.

Assigned to janitorial and groundskeeping duty, Gardner worked a full shift July 17, and medical personnel were called to his housing unit at 6 p.m. that evening where they found him complaining of chest pains. He was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m.

The plaintiffs alleged trained medical practitioners should have known people with significant cardiac histories are at risk in extreme weather conditions, but Bredar said those allegations are more in line with a negligence claim rather than the actual knowledge of defendants.

The defendants produced evidence that Gardner never complained of heart issues during his appointments with medical staff, and the corrections officer named as the supervisor of Gardner’s work unit was not familiar with his medical conditions, according to the opinion.

“The court is disinclined to license a fishing exhibition — particularly where, as here, the Individual Defendants have adduced evidence that seems flatly at offs with the notion that they were deliberately indifferent to the Decedent’s well-being,” Bredar wrote.

In a footnote, Bredar said he would consider an amended complaint if additional facts come to light about currently unnamed prison officials but warned he was unlikely to allow Eighth Amendment claims substantially similar to the ones addressed in his opinion.

“We haven’t had a chance to do discovery yet on anything,” Freeman said. “If discovery turns up some sort of smoking gun as to individual liability the judge left that door open, but until we do discovery we don’t know.”

The plaintiffs are also represented by Jonathan H. Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP in Philadelphia.

The case is Dorothy F. Gardner, et al., v. U.S., et al., 1:15-cv-02874-JKB.