COLUMBUS – A woman who is suing the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville and other parties over her mother’s death while she was an inmate at the jail has asked a federal court to reject the defendants’ motion seeking summary judgment in their favor.
Plaintiff Kelsea Mercer filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio after her mother, 38-year-old Jennifer Ohlinger of Gallipolis died in June 2018 while in jail custody. The suit alleges that jail employees, including the jail nursing supervisor and corrections officers, were “deliberately indifferent” to Ohlinger’s medical needs after she fell and hit her head on a bench, which led to bleeding on her brain and ultimately her death. Named defendants in the suit also include Hocking County and the other area counties – Athens, Morgan, Perry and Vinton – that house inmates at the jail.
In a motion filed Sept. 30 on behalf of five current or former jail employees, attorney Aaron M. Glasgow argued that the facts of the case do not support the claim of deliberate indifference. The motion claims that Mercer cannot demonstrate that defendant James Gray II, a registered nurse who at the time was supervisor of the jail’s medical department, “was aware of facts sufficient to show that he objectively knew or should have known that (Ohlinger) was in the midst of a medical emergency,” or that he recklessly disregarded the information he did have about Ohlinger’s condition.
To the contrary, the motion maintains, Gray “promptly provided Ms. Ohlinger with medical care and attempted to treat her based on the vague and inconsistent symptoms and facts of which he was aware,” and corrections officers named in the suit “immediately responded to all medical related calls for Ms. Ohlinger, they promptly took her to the medical unit for care, and they followed all directives from SEORJ’s medical staff.”
In an answering memorandum filed Oct. 21, attorney R. Craig McLaughlin contends that Mercer “has presented more than sufficient evidence” to convince a reasonable jury that the defendants “knew Jennifer had a serious medical need as she had fallen and hit her head hard, lost consciousness, had seizures, was unsteady on her feet, had a headache, and urinated on herself.” He adds that Mercer has also provided evidence that the jail employees “consciously disregarded Jennifer’s serious needs” by not calling a doctor, taking her to an emergency room, checking frequently on her neurological status, or notifying their supervisor.
According to jail policy and nursing guidelines, McLaughlin maintains, Gray should have consulted a physician and called the jail warden, once he learned that Ohlinger had fallen, hit her head hard, experienced a possible seizure, and lost consciousness. And when about 15 minutes later an inmate reported that Ohlinger had apparently had another seizure, Gray once again did not contact a doctor, call 911, or call the warden, but instead sent her back to bed.
Two hours then passed, McLaughlin alleges, during which Gray never checked on Ohlinger. At the end of this time an inmate alerted a corrections officer that Ohliinger appeared to not be breathing. The jail called 911 and Ohlinger was transported to a trauma center in Columbus, where she died the next morning. Cause of death was ruled to be subarachnoid and subdural hemorrhage.
The motion cites an affidavit by Dr. Willliam Gormley, a neurosurgeon who teaches at Harvard Medical School, who has called it “inexcusable” that Ohlinger was not sent to a hospital, nor was a physician called. “In his opinion, more likely than not, earlier intervention by the nurse and corrections officers would have prevented Jennifer’s death,” the memorandum adds.
McLaughlin also argues that while an employee of a political subdivision such as the jail generally is immune under Ohio law to liability from a civil action to recover damages for injury or death, this immunity does not apply to the jail employee defendants because they acted in a reckless manner.
Mercer has also asked the court to drop two of the individual defendants from the suit. In a motion filed Oct. 22, she asks to drop corrections officer Cody Gilbraith and Warden Joshua D. Vanbibber. If they are dismissed, this will leave as individual defendants Gray, and corrections officers Charity Lowery and Amista Jarvis.
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Jim Phillips is the editor at Logan Daily News and the Perry County Tribune.