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Wendt v. County of Mille Lacs

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

September 3, 2013

Mary Wendt, et al., Respondents,
County of Mille Lacs, Appellant.


Mille Lacs County District Court File No. 48-CV-12-84

Richard W. Curott, Curott & Associates, LLC, Milaca, Minnesota (for respondent)

Jason M. Hiveley, Amanda L. Stubson, Iverson Reuvers Condon, Bloomington, Minnesota (for appellant)

Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge; Cleary, Judge; and Willis, Judge.

WILLIS, Judge [*]

Appellant county challenges the district court's conclusion that the common-law doctrine of official immunity does not bar claims that employees of the Mille Lacs County jail negligently caused respondent to suffer two separate falls while she was incarcerated. We reverse the district court's determination that official immunity does not protect the decision to transfer appellant to her cell in the general population but affirm the determination that the failure to provide respondent with suitable footwear for transfer to a court appearance was not protected by official immunity. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.


On November 27, 2009, respondent Mary Wendt consumed five or six mixed drinks at her residence and was later stopped for speeding while driving on Highway 169 near Onamia. After smelling alcohol and requiring Wendt to take a field sobriety test, a highway patrolman took her into custody and eventually transported her to the Mille Lacs County jail. Wendt was charged with two counts of second-degree driving while impaired. The medical-screening questionnaire completed when Wendt was booked lists medications for high blood pressure and anxiety, and a preliminary breath test administered at the jail showed an alcohol concentration of .148.

While the booking log indicates that Wendt requested to be sent to a detoxification unit in the early morning hours of November 28, the log also notes that she was feeling "much better" hours later. Wendt was transferred from the booking area to a cell in the general population shortly before noon on November 28. Shortly thereafter, correction officers saw that Wendt was not able to stand on her own, and she had to be escorted to her cell from the jail's day room. Once in her cell, Wendt required the assistance of a corrections officer to use the toilet. A corrections officer took Wendt's vital signs and saw that she was shaky, incoherent, and possibly suffering from chemical dependency withdrawal. The form recording the oral instructions to jail staff from on-call medical personnel provides that Wendt should be placed in a holding cell and that jail staff should monitor her vital signs over the course of two hours and provide medication. The form does not indicate whether or when Wendt was to be transferred back to the general population.

Wendt was transferred from the holding cell into a cell in the general population at about 6:00 p.m. on November 28. Wendt recalled that after the transfer, she was in her cell when she "had an onset of claustrophobia, had medical issues, so [she] rang the buzzer on the wall" to alert someone in the booking area. She further testified that she was experiencing difficulty breathing, felt "as though the room was closing in on [her], " and "felt [she] was going to pass out" because she was "dizzy and off balance." After additional unsuccessful attempts to ring for assistance, she "had a fall" and "hit [her] head on the toilet in the cell and cut [her] head open." The responding corrections officer recalled that he heard a "bang" from his desk located about 50 or 60 feet away from Wendt's cell and that when he investigated, Wendt reported that she had fallen and hit her head on the toilet. Wendt received additional medical attention during the morning of November 29, and that afternoon she met with the on-call jail nurse and showed signs of anxiety, agitation, and hallucination. She was eventually transferred to a medical facility in St. Cloud, where she was treated for alcohol withdrawal.

Wendt was transported back to the Mille Lacs County jail on December 4 and was brought before a judge on December 7. Before being transferred to the courthouse for her appearance, she was moved to the booking area, where she was one of a group of ten or eleven inmates. She stated that there "was a lot of commotion and confusion of finding enough shackles and chains for all inmates" and that she was given "extremely large" shoes, which she described as "clown shoes" in which she could not walk. Wendt also stated that the shoes appeared to be men's size 11 and that she normally wears women's size seven and a half.

The group was escorted to a van to drive the short distance to the courthouse, and Wendt complained to jail staff that she could not walk in the shoes provided to her. After their court appearances, the inmates were escorted down the front steps of the courthouse. She remained handcuffed and chained at her ankles. Wendt stepped "down the second or third step on the courthouse" but "fell the complete flight down to the sidewalk, landing face first." She explained that her "shoes got tangled in the leg shackles and chains, and [she] went completely down the whole staircase onto the sidewalk." Wendt alleges that she suffered cuts and bruises to her face and lips, a broken nose, injuries to her hands, and later underwent surgery on her left shoulder.

Wendt and her husband sued appellant County of Mille Lacs, alleging breach of a special duty of care and negligence with respect to the fall that occurred inside the jail on November 29, as well as the fall on the steps of the courthouse on December 7. The county filed a motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative, a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to summary judgment on the ground of vicarious official immunity. The district court concluded that both the decision to move Wendt to a cell in the general population after being instructed by medical personnel to observe her in a holding ...

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