Only two Sedgwick County jail deputies remain as defendants in a lawsuit over the death of inmate Terry Bruner. But that didn’t stop a lawyer from raising questions in federal court Thursday about reported actions or inactions of others at the jail.
U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil told the lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, that he needed to focus on the two defendants, not others. After Vratil dismissed the jury for the day, she admonished Fieger, saying he was trying the case as if it also was a medical malpractice suit and as if it was against the county, not just the two deputies.
Fieger, a high-profile lawyer from Michigan, accepted the admonition but said he was trying to bring in circumstantial evidence pointing to the two defendants, county sheriff’s deputies Mary Staton and Marque Jameson.
The lawsuit, brought by Bruner’s survivors and seeking $10 million when it was filed in 2010, claims the two deputies showed deliberate indifference to Bruner’s obviously serious illness. Bruner, 46, died in 2008 within two days of being transferred from the jail to a hospital.
When the deputies’ attorney, Arthur Chalmers, brought out testimony that the deputy manning a booth in a jail pod has limited view of inmates when they are locked into their single-man cells, Fieger interrupted in a booming voice.
“Is that the defense – that they constructed a jail so nobody can see anybody?” he asked.
Referring to Staton, who was watching from the booth in Bruner’s pod, Fieger said: “She never called the clinic. … There is an avalanche of evidence that she knew he was sick.”
Chalmers countered with a question to Deputy Eric Hunt, asking if anything indicated Staton was “sitting on her hands and refusing to send this gentleman to the clinic?”
“No,” Hunt answered.
Hunt told Chalmers he knew of no situation in which deputies got punished for contacting the jail medical clinic.
Fieger questioned why jail deputies didn’t get Bruner immediate medical attention when evidence showed he was very ill.
Fieger also raised questions about Bruner’s care in the jail medical clinic after he was wheeled there after being found incoherent and curled up in his vomit on his cell floor. Sweat soiled his clothing. He had to be lifted into the wheelchair, according to evidence.
Fieger asked Sharon Nelson, a nurse for ConMed, the contractor that staffs the clinic, why Bruner laid in the clinic for more than six hours before being transferred to the hospital.
“I don’t know,” said Nelson, who checked on Bruner when he was in the jail clinic. “It’s up to the medical staff.”
Under questioning by Fieger, Nelson said she never asked a physician’s assistant on duty why Bruner remained in the clinic for several hours.
While in the clinic, Bruner — who had a history of cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitis C — was essentially unresponsive. He also had a swollen abdomen and yellowing skin and had to be lifted onto a table, according to testimony.
“Did you know he was dying?” Fieger asked.
“I didn’t know,” Nelson responded.
Nelson told Chalmers that Bruner’s heart rate, blood pressure and other signs were OK.
Fieger asked why she checked his vital signs only once during several hours.
When Bruner arrived at the hospital by ambulance, he was brain-dead and had no gag reflex, Fieger said.
The picture Fieger kept trying to present is that Bruner’s illness was clearly serious, that he was moaning and unable to walk, that Staton and Jameson knew he was sick and communicated about it, that he probably would have survived if he had gotten medical help about six hours earlier.
The picture Chalmers sought to present is that it wasn’t that simple, that even medical professionals might have missed the seriousness of the situation.
Earlier Thursday, a nationally known medical expert testified that Bruner suffered from an infection that overwhelmed his body and caused him to become noticeably sick. Werner Spitz told the eight jurors that Bruner had cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. Bruner was in jail for drunken driving.
While in jail, he suffered from a common infection that could have been treated by common antibiotics, and his illness progressed from a lung infection to a blood infection to fatal swelling of his brain, Spitz said.
There would have been noticeable symptoms such as moaning, reaction to pain and sweating, Spitz told jurors. “He is a dying individual,” Spitz said. Eventually, Bruner lost consciousness. His brain swelled and herniated, affecting his breathing.
Testimony resumes today. The trial is expected to last about seven days.