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Letterman v. Does

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 22, 2017

Jimmy Lee Letterman; Annette Fay Letterman, Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Jon Does, individually, and in their official capacities, Defendant Steven Lammers; Noreen Gastineau; Jerry Farnsworth; Bryan Earls, Defendants - Appellants, Marcia Jennings, Defendant Jimmy Lee Letterman; Annette Fay Letterman, Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Jon Does, individually, and in their official capacities, Defendant Steven Lammers; Noreen Gastineau; Jerry Farnsworth; Bryan Earls, Defendants - Appellants Marcia Jennings, Defendant

          Submitted: April 5, 2017

         Appeals from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - St. Joseph

          Before GRUENDER, MURPHY, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Jimmy Lee and Annette Fay Letterman brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Missouri tort law against officers of the Missouri Department of Corrections ("Defendants") for the death of their son while in custody. Three of the Defendants previously appealed the district court's[1] order denying them qualified immunity, and we affirmed as to two of them. Letterman v. Does, 789 F.3d 856, 863-64 (8th Cir. 2015). Defendants now appeal a jury verdict in favor of the Lettermans. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In late 2011, Danial Letterman ("Danial") began to serve a sentence for a drug-related probation violation at the Western Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center ("WRDCC") of the Missouri Department of Corrections. During his sentence, mental health staff placed Danial on suicide watch and moved him to a secured, padded room in the Transitional Care Unit ("TCU"). The facility's close observation policy required officers to check on Danial every fifteen minutes and record their observations in a close observation log. If they could not observe movement, obtain a verbal response, or see him breathing, the officers were required to report it as a medical emergency.

         Just before midnight on November 17, 2011, Danial fell twice in his padded cell. After the first fall, Danial got back up. In the second fall, Danial hit his head on the doorjamb, causing a noise loud enough to prompt Officer Steven Lammers, the officer on duty, to come to the cell to check on him. Lammers saw Danial on the ground and asked if he needed medical assistance. Danial did not respond verbally but waved his hand. Lammers did not obtain medical assistance and noted in the close observation log that Danial was "good." Danial remained conscious between ten and twenty minutes after the fall but did not move from his position on the floor beside the door.

         When Officer Noreen Gastineau relieved Lammers at 7:30 a.m., Danial was still lying on the floor by the door, and Lammers informed Gastineau that Danial had not moved all night after falling. During the morning, one of the TCU doctors came to speak with Danial and knocked on the door of his cell. In response, Danial grunted and moved his foot and head. Around 9 a.m., medical personnel indicated that Danial needed to be awoken, and Gastineau kicked the door, yelled at Danial, and splashed water on his face. In response, Danial moved his head slightly and fluttered his eyelids. Gastineau contacted Sergeant Jerry Farnsworth and informed him that Danial had not moved from his position since the beginning of her shift and that the cell door needed to be opened so medical personnel could check Danial's vital signs. Farnsworth indicated that he could not spare an officer to access the cell. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Bryan Earls, the supervising officer, passed through the TCU on his rounds, and a nurse requested that Earls open the door so she could check Danial's vitals. Gastineau informed Earls that Danial had not moved all day. Earls refused to open the cell, instead suggesting that they "let sleeping dogs lie." Around 2:00 p.m., Marcia Jennings, the TCU's Functional Unit Manager, observed Danial lying in a strange position, and Gastineau informed her that Danial had not moved since last night and had not eaten. Jennings did not report it as a medical emergency; rather, she went to her office and began making phone calls in an attempt to get Danial's cell door open. Around 4:00 p.m., a team finally opened the cell door, and the nurse determined that Danial required immediate medical attention. Danial was transported to the hospital, where he died of subdural bleeding caused by a head injury.

         Danial's parents sued the Defendants for denial of medical care, personal injuries, and wrongful death under both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Missouri tort law. Three of the Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, and the district court denied the motion. This court affirmed except as to Jennings. Letterman, 789 F.3d at 865. The case proceeded to trial and the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Lettermans. For the denial of medical care claim, the jury awarded $6, 793.29 for funeral and burial expenses, $100, 000 for pain and suffering, and $150, 000 for the constitutional violation. The jury also awarded punitive damages against each defendant related to the denial of medical care claim. For the wrongful death claim, the jury awarded $1, 000, 000. Defendants renewed their request for judgment as a matter of law and alternatively moved for a new trial, challenging the jury instructions and several evidentiary rulings. The district court denied the motions and awarded attorney's fees and costs to the Lettermans pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Defendants now appeal.

         II. Discussion

         Defendants raise a number of issues on appeal. First, they contend they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to the pain and suffering claim. Second, Defendants argue that they are entitled to a new trial because the jury was not instructed on official immunity under Missouri law. Defendants also argue a new trial is warranted because the district court erred in several evidentiary rulings.

         A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         We "review the district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo, using the same standards as the district court." Luckert v. Dodge Cty., 684 F.3d 808, 816 (8th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted). Thus, "[w]e review the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences in its favor and resolving all factual disputes in its favor." Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Scott, 486 F.3d 418, 422 (8th Cir. 2007). The court is not at liberty to reweigh the evidence "or consider questions of credibility, " and it must "give great deference to the jury's verdict." Howard v. Mo. Bone & Joint Ctr., Inc., 615 F.3d 991, 995 (8th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). "Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only ...


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