OGDEN — A former sheriff, a corrections deputy and Weber County have prevailed against a civil lawsuit that alleged unconstitutionally indifferent jail medical care resulted in the 2016 death of arrestee Ashley Evan Jessop.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby in Salt Lake City granted summary judgment to the county defendants in a June 1 ruling against the complaint, which was brought in 2018 by Jessop’s mother, Michelle Shafer.
Shelby said the suit failed to achieve the “hard to meet” legal standard of demonstrating that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the detainee’s serious medical needs.
Jessop, 35, died March 3, 2016, in an Ogden hospital three days after he became unresponsive in the jail’s intake, or booking, area. Shafer’s suit argued the jail did not closely watch Jessop and that there was no evidence it kept a log of his observation.
According to court records, an autopsy showed Jessop at the time of death was suffering from “metabolic encephalopathy, rhabdomyolysis, kidney injury, end-stage liver disease, seizures, gastrointestinal bleed, alcohol dependence with withdrawal, and left side bruising and injuries.”
Shane Gosdis, Shafer’s attorney, issued a prepared statement Wednesday in response to Shelby’s decision:
“The family is deeply disappointed in the court’s recent ruling. They strongly believe that Weber County is responsible for Mr. Jessop’s death and that the officers involved were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Jessop’s medical needs. Unfortunately, Judge Shelby did not agree with us. We appreciate the time he took in reviewing the facts and the law and applying them in the way he believed best. The family is still considering whether to appeal his ruling to the 10th Circuit.”
Zjana Herring of Roy, the mother of Jessop’s 20-year-old daughter, Alexis, said in a phone interview Tuesday that she and her daughter were somewhat estranged from Shafer and were not part of the lawsuit.
Herring said Jessop’s death had “a very hard impact” on Alexis.
“Now, actually she’s doing really good,” Herring said. “She’s working and trying to do this adulting thing.”
Herring said she and Jessop were high school sweethearts. She said they split up several years after Alexis was born but remained friends.
Jessop was a long-term alcoholic and Herring was not expecting him to live much longer.
“To me, it was actually a blessing that we weren’t watching him kill himself anymore,” Herring said. “Alcoholism isn’t a very fun thing to die from. It’s a very horrible, miserable, long death.”
She said she’s still mystified, though, why Ogden police arrested Jessop and took him to jail that night. She said he was frequently intoxicated and some officers who dealt with him would try to see him safely home rather than take him to jail.
Ogden City originally was a defendant in Shafer’s suit, but the plaintiff dropped the city from the case in 2019.
The judge referred to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ definition of acting with deliberate indifference. It occurs if the conduct “disregards a known or obvious risk that is very likely to result” in a violation of the person’s constitutional right to adequate care.
Deliberate indifference, the 10th Circuit says, means “the official knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.”
So, to prevail, a plaintiff must “show that prison officials were consciously aware that the prisoner faced a substantial risk of harm and wantonly disregarded the risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.”
Shelby ruled that former Sheriff Terry Thompson, who was in office when Jessop died, did not know Jessop was arrested, had never met him and was not aware of actions taken or not taken by jail personnel that day.
Further, the judge said, there was “no hint” in the case record that Allen Jacobsen, the corrections deputy who conducted Jessop’s intake screening for medical and mental health issues, did anything less than a conscientious job of evaluating Jessop for processing into the jail.
The record showed Jacobsen “diligently completing the intake-screening form” and following up on points of potential concern.
“He also explained that he knew he did not stand in final judgment as to (Jessop’s) health risks,” Shelby wrote. “He understood policy dictated that medical professionals would see his intake-screening form and pursue any angles that made sense based on their expertise.”
Therefore, Shelby ruled Thompson, Jacobsen and the county were entitled to “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”
Shelby quoted case law describing the rationale behind qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity balances two important interests — the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”
That doctrine has been under increasing fire outside courtrooms because critics charge it unfairly protects law enforcement personnel, such as Minneapolis police officers in the death of detainee George Floyd.
In numerous federal suits against jails and police in Northern Utah over the past several years, most officers have been granted qualified immunity by the courts.