Clinton County officials to claim qualified immunity in lawsuit

JOSEPH HEHRER

GRAND RAPIDS — Clinton County officials who are being sued for allegedly failing to provide medical care to a jail inmate who later died at Sparrow Health System in Lansing are claiming qualified immunity, according to a federal court filing.

A federal civil lawsuit filed in November 2020 by the family of Joseph Hehrer, of Ovid, who died in 2019, seeks at least $75,000 in damages from Clinton County and several officials. The suit claims Hehrer was sick for days while being held in the Clinton County Jail and officials refused to transfer him to a facility to receive medical care. He died in March 2019 of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Qualified immunity is a type of defense that shields law enforcement and other government officials from civil lawsuits. The crux of qualified immunity rests on whether police violated a “clearly established” right, according to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case.

According to court documents, Sheriff Lawrence Jerue, Jail Administrator Thomas Wirth, numerous jail officers, and Advanced Correctional Healthcare — are asserting the qualified immunity defense, according to a filing by their attorneys, and have asked for the lawsuit against them to be dismissed.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit were Sparrow doctors and nurses, but that portion of the lawsuit has been transferred out of federal court, according to Kara Weisman, who is the attorney for Hehrer’s estate.

“The Sparrow suit transferred jurisdiction and is now filed in the Clinton County Circuit Court and remain pending,” Weisman said via email.

No further proceedings have yet been scheduled in the federal suit.

According to the suit, Hehrer was arrested Jan. 23, 2019, by Clinton County sheriff’s deputies for a second-offense OWI (presence of drugs) and probation violation related to a Jan. 18, 2019, car crash on East Colony and North Chandler roads. Following that crash, Hehrer’s breathing was “labored and shallow.”

Hehrer was intubated and transferred to Sparrow in Lansing, where he was evaluated for traumatic injuries and given intravenous fluids. His condition improved, and tests showed elevated glucose levels.

The lawsuit states Hehrer was denied bond in the case because he was on probation for a prior OWI, so he was lodged in the jail. According to the lawsuit, he began exhibiting signs of illness March 4, 2019, and “not being able to hold food down.”

Hehrer submitted a sick call request to jail staff March 5, 2019, complaining of “fever, queasiness, headaches in and out, heartburn constantly throughout the day; have puked a couple times.”

On March 6, 2019, Hehrer was moved for medical observation. His temperature was 96.2 degrees and he weighed 114.2 pounds.

At that point, Hehrer had been vomiting for four days and, the suit claims, his body temperature was less than 1 degree from being hypothermic. Hehrer was returned to a housing unit later that day.

After being returned to general population, the lawsuit claims, “multiple inmates showed concern for Mr. Hehrer and checked on him throughout the day” on March 7, 2019.

Over the next several days, Hehrer was housed in the receiving area of the jail, where he vomited blood and refused food numerous times, the suit claims.

The lawsuit claims another inmate was placed into the same cell as Hehrer March 8, and attempted to get help, but was told staff “already knew because he had been sick for a few days and the (staff) did not care.”

Guards placed a call to 911 shortly after 9 a.m. March 9, 2019, and a nurse told Clinton County Central Dispatch “Mr. Hehrer had ‘dark brown vomit, jaundice, not eating, not urinating, no bowel movements, can’t get up, (Mr. Hehrer could) hardly swallow, choke’ and she further stated that Mr. Hehrer was ‘really in trouble and he’s thrown up a lot.’”

Hehrer was eventually transported to Sparrow, where his glucose level was 1,117, his blood pressure was 60 over 30, and his body temperature was 93.6 degrees.

Hehrer passed away March 13, 2019, after suffering multiple strokes, gastrointestinal bleeding with hypotension, acute kidney injury and right jugular vein thrombosis.

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