Sevier County dismissed from lawsuit

Wrongful death complaint still active against clinic
Aug. 23, 2013 @ 11:44 PM

The county is no longer part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died in the Sevier County Jail.

Judge Thomas Varlan dismissed with prejudice the claims filed by the family of Billy Duane Foster against the county, sheriff’s office, Sheriff Ron Seals and jail personnel. Seals declined to comment on the decision for this story.

“Plaintiff cannot show that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the county acted with deliberate indifference in its dealings with First Med, either in its decision to hire the company or supervision and training of the company’s employees,” Varlan wrote.

The complaint is still active against First Med, the clinic that holds the county contract for medical services at the jail, and against personnel working for the clinic. That includes Nursing Supervisor Tammy Finchum, who court documents indicate had Foster sent back into the jail after another nurse was set to have him taken to the hospital when he suffered seizures the day of his death. Varlan previously dropped Dr. Robert Maughon, owner of First Med, from the complaint but declined to drop the clinic and other personnel.

Foster’s wife, Cynthia Paulk, and other family members filed the complaint after his death, claiming the jail and First Med failed to provide adequate medical care and was negligent. They are asking for $2 million in damages.

Varlan notes the family had agreed to drop the sheriff and his personnel as well as Sevier County Commission from the compliant, but had argued the county should remain as a defendant.

He finds, however, that they haven’t demonstrated the county was deliberately indifferent to the rights of the inmates.

He cites a ruling from another federal court that states “The Supreme Court has long held that municipal governments may only be sued for unconstitutional or illegal municipal polices, and not for unconstitutional conduct of their employees.”

Court filings confirmed the county had a written policy calling for jail and medical staff to “refer all inmates to qualified medical personnel on an emergency basis.”

It also states “the emergency medical care plan be initiated any time an inmate is unconscious, having serious breathing difficulties or a sudden onset of bizarre behavior.”

Foster died Feb. 27, when he suffering seizures after spending seven days in the jail. His autopsy indicated he died due to heart disease, but that a seizure disorder contributed to his death.

At the time of his death, the jail’s policy called for medical staff to observe how often seizures were occurring.

He had been suffering from seizures since early that morning, according to the complaint, and at about bout 4:36 p.m. the nurse on duty at the jail advised corrections officers that he needed to go to the hospital. They had placed him in a wheelchair and taken him to the booking area at the front of the jail when she contacted Jail Nurse Supervisor Tammy Finchum, according to the complaint.

“Nurse Finchum instructed Nurse (Jessie) Timbrook to return Billy Duane Foster to (his dorm in the jail) and monitor him and his vital signs every two hours,” the complaint states.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com