Officer dropped in jail wrongful death civil suit

Published 12:06 pm Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A New Tazewell police officer can breathe a little easier since learning that he is no longer included in a civil suit for the alleged wrongful death of a Claiborne County Jail inmate in October 2021.

Officer Russell Ruszkowski and the town of New Tazewell are no longer defendants in the case brought by relatives of the late Joseph Lou Collins Burkhart. The 26-year-old died from cardiopulmonary failure due to a drug overdose.

However, two unnamed jailors and the county in general are still under the gun, facing a possible debt to the plaintiffs of $1.5 million plus all fees and costs associated with the case.

Burkhart’s father, Joseph Collins, and mother Shawn Burkhart claim in the amended court documents that the county failed to take the inmate to the nearest hospital when he was clearly suffering the effects of a drug overdose.

Ruskowski arrested and booked Burkhart into jail after finding him unconscious at a local gas station, charging him with public intoxication. According to police reports and the court records, Burkhart was found “unconscious and hanging out the driver’s side” of his vehicle. Ruskowski knew from past encounters that Burkhart had a history of drug abuse, according to the suit.

The arrest report states that Burkhart was “passed out with his head leaning between his legs with the driver door open, his head resting on the concrete.” It took Ruskowski several tries before Burkhart was roused. The report added that he smelled of alcohol and was unsteady on his feet.

The suit claims Burkhart was taken directly to jail despite clearly exhibiting signs of drug-induced distress backed up by police body cam video footage.

The document states the two unnamed jail corrections officers, listed as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, performed a brief medical screen following Burkhart’s arrival.

“Despite administering Naloxone, however, neither Defendant John Doe 1, nor John Doe 2, nor any other correctional officer or medical staff called 911 or otherwise sought emergency medical attention,” reads the document, in part. “Furthermore, upon information and belief, either due to lack of training or indifference, Defendant John Doe 1, Defendant John Doe 2, and other correctional officers failed to even place Burkhart under medical observation. Instead, Burkhart was housed in a shared cell and essentially left to ‘sleep off’ a medical emergency,” continues the document.

Naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan, is an opioid antagonist that is usually administered nasally and is designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

“The fact that Burkhart’s post-mortem toxicology report reveals the presence of Naloxone indicates that someone at the jail … knew that Burkhart was suffering from opioid overdose/toxicity,” continues the lawsuit.

While taking a break, a jailor reportedly saw Burkhart “moving” at 10:45 p.m. By 1:27 a.m. the next morning, a different jailor discovered Burkhart unresponsive.

He was officially pronounced dead at 4:39 a.m. via a phone call from the jail medical doctor.

As a pre-trial detainee, Burkhart was not given his rightful medical care under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the suit alleges. Instead, the plaintiffs claim the jail acted in deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs resulting in Burkhart’s untimely death.

The suit claims Claiborne County failed to adequately train its jail personnel in how to respond to medical emergencies. Instead, the county follows a longstanding policy to deny pretrial detainees appropriate medical attention, according to the suit.

“As a direct and proximate result of defendant’s violations of Burkhart’s constitutional rights, Burkhart suffered needlessly and died unnecessarily,” reads the document.