Vinson v. Clarke County, Ala.

Decision Date17 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. Civ.A. 95-0819-RV-M.,Civ.A. 95-0819-RV-M.
Citation10 F.Supp.2d 1282
PartiesNettie VINSON, et al., Plaintiffs, v. CLARKE COUNTY, ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Alabama

Richard M. Crump, Donald G. Beebe, Mobile, AL, Rocky W. Eaton, Mobile, AL, for plaintiffs.

Steven L. Terry, Peter V. Sintz, Mobile, AL, for defendants.


VOLLMER, District Judge.

Presently before the court are the defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 15) and a supporting brief (Doc. 16) with exhibits (Doc. 17). Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to the motion (Doc. 19), and defendants thereafter filed a reply brief (Doc. 20). The court has carefully reviewed the law and considered the arguments of the parties. For the reasons set forth below, it is the decision of the court that defendants' motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.


This is an action brought by survivors of the deceased, Edgar Louis Vinson, Jr. (hereinafter "Vinson"). On October 17, 1994, Vinson was arrested for DUI, placed in Clarke County Jail, and found dead in his cell approximately 30 minutes after his incarceration. Medical records indicate that he died as a result of suicide from asphyxiation caused by hanging.

The defendants in this lawsuit are Clarke County; Jack Day, the Sheriff of Clarke County at the time of Vinson's death; and Donald Bradford, a civilian (non-deputized) jailer of Clarke County. Sheriff Day and jailer Bradford are sued in both their individual and official capacities.1 Deputy Sheriff Buster Hough was also named as a party defendant but was dismissed from the action in a previous order of the court. (See Pretrial Order, Doc. 26, at 7). In Count I of the complaint, plaintiffs seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivation of Vinson's constitutional right to due process of law, as set forth in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They contend that jailer Bradford "acted with deliberate indifference to Vinson by allowing or causing him to suffocate by strangulation while in [his] custody."2 Complaint ¶ 9. Furthermore, they contend that Clarke County and Sheriff Day were deliberately indifferent to Vinson's due process rights because they failed to train jail personnel properly in the care of intoxicated inmates.

Additionally, plaintiffs claim that Clarke County's inadequate maintenance of the physical facilities of the jail evidences a policy of deliberate indifference to the collective rights of all detainees and/or all intoxicated pre-trial detainees.3 Specifically, they allege that because the county has never made any efforts to modify or replace the jail facility so as to reduce or eliminate the implements which a detainee could use to hang himself, or to install video monitoring equipment, jail detainees are unconstitutionally subjected to dangerous conditions in violation of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.4 Central to all of plaintiffs' claims is the argument that intoxicated inmates warrant special attention from their custodians because they are particularly prone to attempt suicide.

In Count II of the complaint, plaintiffs seek to recover money damages under Alabama law for Vinson's pain and suffering which allegedly resulted from the wantonness and negligence of the defendants in caring for inmate Vinson. Finally, in Count III plaintiffs set forth a claim for relief under Alabama's wrongful death statute.

A. Jurisdiction

Title 28 U.S.C. § 1331 provides the court with federal question jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claim for relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs' two state law claims by way of 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

B. Venue

Venue is appropriate in this judicial district pursuant to 28 U.S .C. § 1391(b).

C. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). See also Adickes v. S.H. Kress, Inc., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). All evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Alphin v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 940 F.2d 1497, 1500 (11th Cir.1991); Langston v. ACT, 890 F.2d 380, 383 (11th Cir.1989). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the function of the, court is not to "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is an issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 242-43, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2505-07, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

The standard for awarding summary judgment is the same as that for a directed verdict: "the trial judge must grant [the motion] if, under governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict." Morisky v. Broward County, 80 F.3d 445, 447 (11th Cir.1996). To avoid an adverse ruling on a motion for summary judgment, "the nonmoving party must provide more than a mere scintilla of evidence." Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1526 (11th Cir.1997). "[T]here must be a substantial conflict in evidence to support a jury question." Id. (quoting Carter v. City of Miami, 870 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir.1989)).


Most of the facts pertinent to defendants' motion for summary judgment are undisputed by the parties. Where there is any discrepancy in the record, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the non-movants.5

A. Background to the Suicide

At 2:46 p.m. on October 17, 1994, Alabama State Trooper J.G. ("Jimmy") Clark, III responded to a two-car accident near the intersection of Clarke County Roads 3 and 16. The accident occurred approximately fifteen minutes before his arrival. No one was injured but Vinson, the driver of one of the vehicles, was arrested for DUI after he failed the Alcho-sensor field test. Trooper Clark transported Vinson to the Clarke County Jail in Grove Hill, Alabama. Upon arriving at the jail at 3:41 p.m., Trooper Clark directed Vinson to a room where he asked Vinson to take the Intoxilyzer test. Vinson refused the test and also declined to make any statements for the Sobriety Examination Report. Vinson was subsequently booked and processed at 4:02 p.m. by the jailer, Donald Bradford, a non-deputized employee of the Clarke County Sheriff's Department. Vinson placed a phone call to his wife, Nettie Vinson, sometime between 4:02 p.m. and 4:10 p.m. Between 4:10 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., Vinson was placed in jail cell No. 5 by jailer Bradford. Vinson was the only person in cell No. 5.

After receiving the phone call from her husband, Nettie Vinson decided to go see him at the jail. She arrived at Clarke County Sheriff's Department at approximately 4:45 p.m. Jailer Bradford and Mrs. Vinson walked back towards Vinson's cell. Upon peering into the cell and seeing Vinson's body hanging awkwardly from some jail bars at the rear of the cell, Bradford called for help. In response to Bradford's call, Lieutenant Buster Hough brought the master keys, unlocked the door, and cut Vinson down. An ambulance was called, as well as the coroner and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. After examining the body, the coroner pronounced Vinson dead. Laboratory tests performed during an autopsy revealed that Vinson's blood contained .205 percent alcohol (well over the maximum of .1 percent allowed under the Alabama DUI law) at the time the autopsy was conducted. Approximately 30 minutes elapsed between the time that Vinson was placed in cell No. 5 and the time that his body was discovered.

B. Jail Cell No. 5

Jail cell No. 5 is one of six cells on the ground floor of the jail facility. If looking from the jailers' office down the hallway off which these cells are located, cell No. 5 is the last one on the right. The cell is not of typical construction. The front wall is solid block, except for the steel door which has a hatch designed to permit a food tray to be passed to an occupant. The side walls, like the front wall, are constructed of solid block. It is the rear of the cell that is lined with jail bars running from the floor to the ceiling. Along the other side of the jail bars is a narrow hallway that runs to a galley which was no longer in use at the time of Vinson's suicide. It is unclear from the evidence presented exactly where on the jail bars Vinson attached the improvised noose. The jail facility does not have video surveillance equipment for the monitoring of inmates.

C. The Personnel In Charge of the Jail

The Sheriff of Clarke County at the time of Vinson's death was Jack Day; he took that office only seventeen days before Vinson died. Day, however, served as chief deputy from September, 1979 until the day he became sheriff, October 1, 1994. He was not present at the jail during any part of the incident. Sheriff Day was responsible for implementing the "Policy and Procedure Directive: Admission of Inmates" (hereinafter "Directive") which he issued on October 1, 1994. Entry number five of that manual reads: "Intoxicated inmates should not be placed in a cell by themselves; rather, they should be placed in a cell with other inmates so that they can be observed." (Pls.' Ex. H at 2). The Directive was the only written instruction provided to Sheriff's Department employees on the subject of intoxicated inmates. At his deposition, Sheriff Day testified that he could not recall whether he gave additional oral instructions to Bradford or any other jail employee on the care of intoxicated inmates. (See Day Dep. at 57-58).

Jailer Bradford knew of and...

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