Start your free consultation

We’re trial lawyers. Our core competency – above everything else – is trying cases to juries. And we specialize in beating giants.

Alcohol Withdrawal in Jail

Minnesota Civil Rights Lawyers Help Prisoners in Jail with Alcohol Withdrawal

Many alcoholics are arrested for various charges, which results in that person no longer having access to alcohol. Like other types of substances and for people with substance abuse issues, it is not easy to simply stop consuming alcohol. To be sure, when an alcoholic does not have access to alcohol, she or he can suffer from severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that ultimately may lead to death. When an inmate in a county jail or state prison suffers symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, the law enforcement officials, guards, and other employees at the jail or prison need to be able to recognize these symptoms and to take action in order to prevent a serious injury or death.

Inmates and prisoners have right to adequate medical treatment, which includes treatment for alcohol withdrawal. If the guards and officers of a jail or prison negligently fail to recognize alcohol withdrawal symptoms or intentionally withhold medical treatment from an inmate suffering from delirium tremens, the jail or prison and its personal may be accountable for the inmate’s death. While we know how difficult it can be for families to even think about filing a lawsuit after losing a loved one, it is essential to hold these jails and prisons accountable. By filing a civil rights lawsuit, you can hold the responsible parties accountable for your loved one’s death, and you can also help to illuminate the importance of upholding prisoners’ civil rights. An experienced Minnesota prisoners’ rights attorney can speak with you today about your case.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal and Why Is It Dangerous?

When a person heavily consumes alcohol for a prolonged period of time, suddenly avoiding alcohol can have serious consequences. Alcohol withdrawal is a term that refers to the body’s changes when a person such as an alcohol suddenly stops using alcohol, according to Harvard Health. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include but are not limited to:

  • Trembling;
  • Shaking;
  • Insomnia;
  • Seizures;
  • Anxiety; and
  • Other physical and mental symptoms.

Why does alcohol withdrawal occur? To begin with, when a person consumes alcohol, it produces a sedating effect or a depressant effect, according to Harvard Health. When a person suffers from alcohol addiction and drinks heavily over a long period of time, “the brain is almost continually exposed to the depressant effect of alcohol.” As a result, that person’s brain will ultimately adjust “its own chemistry to compensate for the effect of alcohol.” To do this, the brain will produce more amounts of stimulating chemicals like serotonin or norepinephrine. Accordingly, a person who suffers from alcoholism will regularly produce more serotonin, norepinephrine, or other stimulating brain chemicals than a person who is not an alcoholic.

When an alcoholic suddenly stops consuming alcohol, the brain becomes overstimulated. Harvard Health describes it like this: “the brain is like an accelerated vehicle that has lost its brakes.” Depending upon a variety of factors, a person who experiences alcohol withdrawal may experience minor or life-threatening symptoms. About 1 out of every 20 people who experiences alcohol withdrawal will go through the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal known as “delirium tremens.” You may have heard of this condition as the “DTs.”

If a person suffers from delirium tremens, his or her brain “is not able to smoothly readjust its chemistry after alcohol is stopped.” As a result, the person experiences extreme confusion and dangerous shifts in brain chemistry. The brain cannot properly regulate the person’s circulation or breathing systems, and the person’s blood pressure and heart rate can spike and drop “dramatically or unpredictably.” As such, a person with DTs can be at serious risk of a heart attack or a stroke, ultimately leading to death.

Signs of a Serious Alcohol Withdrawal Case

Jail and prison personnel need to be properly trained in order to recognize the signs and symptoms of delirium tremens and other indications that an inmate is going through alcohol withdrawal. When a person begins to suffer from alcohol withdrawal, she or he will need to receive medical treatment immediately. In particular, if a person is experiencing DTs, seizures, or severe vomiting, Harvard Health emphasizes that the person needs to receive immediate treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU) where blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing can be closely monitored. If necessary, a person suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal may need to be assisted by emergency life-support equipment, or they may need to receive benzodiazepines.

Employees at jails and prisons should recognize the following as common signs of alcohol withdrawal and should ensure that an inmate receives necessary medical care:

  • Tremors or shakes: typically start anywhere from 5 to 10 hours after having a drink. Signs and symptoms can include trembling, shaking, a rapid pulse, an increase in blood pressure, rapid breathing, sweating, nausea, vomiting, irritability, nightmares, insomnia, or being in a “hyper-alert” state.
  • Alcohol hallucinosis: typically begins anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after last consuming alcohol, and it can last for up to two days. The person experiencing this symptom of alcohol withdrawal often will hallucinate, or see or feel things that are not actually real.
  • Alcohol withdrawal seizures: these can begin anywhere from 6 to 48 hours after last having a drink, and seizures can occur for several hours.
  • Delirium tremens: usually begins two or three days after a person’s last drink, but sometimes symptoms will not start for more than a week after a person last consumed alcohol. As we mentioned above, this is one of the most serious and life-threatening symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Signs can include confusion or disorientation, loss of consciousness, nervous behavior, angry behavior, irrational behavior, extreme sweating, sleep disturbance, and hallucinations.

Prisoners’ Rights to Adequate Healthcare in Jails and Prisons

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires jails and prisons to provide adequate medical care to inmates and prisoners of jails and prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear that failing to provide adequate medical treatment to an inmate or prisoner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble (1976) made clear that prisoners have rights to adequate medical care.

The U.S. Supreme Court further clarified an inmate’s right to adequate medical care in West v. Atkins (1988), explaining that inmates have a right to adequate medical care regardless of whether the medical care comes from a government employee or a private healthcare provider who is under contract with the government.

To be clear, a prisoner’s right to adequate medical treatment extends to adequate medical treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. However, in order to make a constitutional claim, a plaintiff needs to be able to prove that the jail or prison, or its personnel, acted with “deliberate indifference” toward the inmate. This burden of proof is different from a sheer negligence claim for an alcohol withdrawal death in jail.

Filing an Eighth Amendment Violation Claim

In order for the family members of an inmate who died from alcohol withdrawal in a jail to file a constitutional claim, the family will need to be able to prove that the jail or prison acted with “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.” This requirement was established in another U.S. Supreme Court case, Farmer v. Brennan (1994). It is important to know that, in order to prove that jail personnel acted with “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of an inmate suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms, negligence is not enough. To be sure, a poorly trained guard who did not properly recognize the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will not be found to have acted with “deliberate indifference.”

Instead, to prove a person or parties acted with deliberate indifference, the plaintiff needs to be able to show that the jail or prison guard (or other employee in charge of the inmate or prisoner) recklessly disregarded a substantial risk of harm to the inmate or prisoner. To be clear, the plaintiff needs to be able to show that the jail or prison personnel recognized the medical risk to the inmate and disregarded that risk by failing to take steps for the inmate to receive medical care.

Filing a Negligence Claim for a Jail Alcohol Withdrawal Death

Even if a family cannot prove that a jail or prison acted with deliberate indifference, it may still be possible to file a negligence claim against the facility or its employees. Jails and prisons need to properly train staff to recognize signs of a serious medical condition, and to train employees to make certain that an inmate receives the medical care that she or he needs. Even if a jail guard did not intentionally avoid getting medical help for an inmate suffering from delirium tremens, the jail may still be liable for the negligent death of the inmate.

In such a situation, the family of the inmate may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit under state law. Under Minnesota wrongful death law, most wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within six years from the date of the death. However, that time window can vary depending upon other facts of the case. As such, it is important to discuss your case with an attorney.

Contact a Prisoners Rights Lawyer Assisting with Alcohol Withdrawal Death Cases

If your loved one died in jail as a result of alcohol withdrawal, an experienced Minnesota prisoners’ rights lawyer can discuss your options for filing a lawsuit. Contact Madia Law LLC for more information. 

THE MADIA LAW WAY

We have a process that works in getting exceptional results for our clients. 

We are trial lawyers who prepare every case for trial from Day 1. Investigation and legal research are the first things we do, and we spend a lot of time on them. Because we haven’t filed the case yet, we have complete control – the defendant has no say and we want to use this time wisely.  We interview witnesses that can help us prove the case.  We’ll ask you for all relevant documents in your possession and review those carefully as well.  We also will spend some time conducting legal research about unique issues in the case.  We pull the jury instructions that the judge will ultimately charge the jury with after closing arguments at trial. 

Our next step is typically to send a demand letter to the defendant. In the letter, we thoroughly lay out: the facts surrounding the defendant’s misconduct; the applicable law (including statutory and case citations) that make clear that the defendant broke the law; an analysis of your damages and the defendant’s monetary exposure; a demand for a monetary amount to settle the claim; and an instruction to preserve all relevant evidence, including electronic evidence. The point of this letter is to give the defendant a chance to do the right thing and pay a fair amount before litigation, and to give the defendant an opportunity to present any defenses or evidence it wants us to consider before moving forward.  Sometimes we skip the demand letter if there are strategic reasons to move straight to filing, but we typically give defendants a chance to do the right thing.

If early negotiations fail, great – we file a Complaint and serve the defendant with it. A Complaint is a legal document that states the facts of what happened and alleges how the defendant broke the law. It formally starts the lawsuit.  Many lawyers draft complaints in a general and relatively vague way, just to get it done and filed – because that’s all that’s really required.  We take a different view. We view the Complaint as our first chance to tell your story to the judge, and we take it seriously. So we draft detailed complaints and include legal citations to statutory and judicial authority on unique points.  Sometimes we’ll include a number of exhibits, diagrams, or other demonstrative aids to help the Court understand our claims.  A secondary benefit of this approach is that defense lawyers reading the Complaint can become educated on the problems of their case and the state of the law – sometimes this leads them to reach out to us shortly after service of the Complaint to re-initiate settlement negotiations.  Of course, by that time, the price for settlement has gone up.

Some lawyers view written discovery as a necessary evil – something to get done and out of the way before depositions.  Not us.  Written discovery is a gift and an opportunity.  We spend a great deal of time crafting requests for documents and interrogatories (questions for the defendant to answer in writing) that are specific, detailed, and tailored to get what we need to prove our case.  Many lawyers – even great ones – think written discovery is a waste of time because defense lawyers typically answer them on behalf of their clients and can try to stonewall with legalese and objections.  We view this as a wonderful opportunity.  In our experience, most defense lawyers can’t help themselves when answering discovery: they over-state their defenses and make assertions that their clients will not be able to support in testimony. So we get to commit the defendant to defenses that they can’t back up, leading to contradictions, confusion, and chaos in their depositions later on.  We also use Requests for Admission – which many lawyers don’t.  The Federal Rules and Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure allow us to ask defendants to “admit” certain facts.  We send them RFAs that are very difficult for them to deny.  Of course, they do it anyway, but that sets them up later for cost and fee-shifting, which the Rules mandate for defendants that deny RFAs that are later proven true.  And usually, we can get the defendants’ own witnesses to admit facts that their defense lawyers denied in RFA.  That’s a great situation that leads to more chaos and confusion on the defense side.

One last point on written discovery – we send multiple waves of it throughout discovery.  We typically send 3 or 4 sets of written discovery requests to defendants throughout discovery.  This compounds the problems for them, because the defense lawyers continue to overstate their defenses, but now run into contradictions from not just the defendant witnesses’ deposition testimony, but also their own previous discovery responses.  This makes for a great record that we can present to the judge at dispositive motions, and use for impeachment at trial.

This is our chance to question relevant witnesses, on the record with a court reporter (we typically videotape important depositions as well). We get to confront the defense witnesses with all of the evidence we’ve developed through written discovery and document production. By this time, the defendant put its witnesses in an impossible position through its written defenses, which are often untrue and indefensible.  So the witness has to either lie to support the defense, or admit it’s not true.  That’s a dilemma that works for our clients either way, no matter which option the witness takes.  We use depositions to expose contradictions, create a record for dispositive motions, lock witnesses into their stories so that we can impeach them later at trial, and sometimes, to show defense lawyers how hopeless their case is.  We often calls from defense counsel shortly after depositions of their clients, seeking to re-start settlement negotiations.

The defendant will usually make a motion for summary judgment after discovery, asking the Court to throw out the case without having a jury trial. Because we’ve hit discovery so hard – both through written discovery and depositions – this is a tough motion for defense counsel to write in our cases.  We draft our response for the Court and now get to bring everything together: the admissions, contradictions, nonsense, and obvious fact disputes that we’ve uncovered through discovery.  We tell a compelling story that wraps everything together for the Court and makes clear that the defense motion has to be denied, and the defendant needs to face a jury for its conduct.

Sometimes, we’ll even make an affirmative motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to grant judgment in favor of our client without a trial. These motions are generally rare for plaintiffs to make, because the defendant can usually point to some fact dispute on its intent or some other factor that necessitates a trial. But we make affirmative summary judgment motions significantly more than is typical for plaintiffs, and that’s because the work we put in during discovery helps build a fantastic record to do so.

After the Court denies the defense motion for summary judgment, the defendant has only 2 options: 1) do the right thing and pay you a fair amount to our client to settle your claim (usually much, much more at this point than the defendant could have paid at the beginning of the case to settle); or 2) face a jury for its conduct and risk an enormous verdict. This is the dilemma that we have been creating and forcing the defendant into for the entire case. We’ll engage in settlement negotiations at this point from a position of extreme strength, mainly because most defendants are (rightly) terrified of facing a jury to defend their conduct.

This is, candidly, our favorite part of the case – why we went to law school: to hold the powerful accountable before juries.  We prepare heavily for trial, including: detailed witness preparation, focus groups, and mock trials.  At this point, the potential outcomes and consequences for the defendant are much more severe than if it simply did the right thing at the beginning of the case and paid a fair amount to compensate our client for its misconduct.  As we advocate to the jury for our client, we’re also mindful of protecting the record so that defendants will be unsuccessful in attacking the verdict in post-trial motions or appeal.

What Our Clients Say