Hill County has been cleared of wrongdoing in the death of high school basketball phenom A.J. Longsoldier.
The Montana Supreme Court unanimously overturned a district court ruling that found the county “vicariously liable” for Longsoldier’s death, ending a decade-long legal dispute.
In 2011, the Longsoldier estate settled a negligence case with Northern Montana Hospital, but the estate contended that the county shared in that blame.
Longsoldier was an outstanding basketball player from Hays-Lodge Pole High School and became an icon for area students, but his career was tarnished by problems with alcohol.
He was a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in November 2009. Upon returning home for a relative’s funeral, he was taken into custody by Blaine County deputies at the request of his probation officer on a relatively minor charge.
Longsoldier was not intoxicated at the time of his arrest, but began showing signs of alcohol withdrawal syndrome after he was lodged in the Hill County Detention Center, where Blaine County houses its inmates.
As his condition worsened, Hill County officials contacted Blaine County deputies, who in turn called Northern Montana Hospital.
Longsoldier was taken to the hospital and a physician prescribed medication, apparently not realizing the seriousness of his illness.
Upon returning to jail, he began convulsing and talking to himself. Blaine County officials once again contacted the emergency room. A nurse advised officials that Longsoldier was not ill but was “playing them” because he didn‘t want to be in jail.
But as the night went on, Longsoldier’s condition deteriorated. Corrections officers summoned an ambulance. Longsoldier was taken to the hospital, where he died shortly thereafter.
The estate filed a discrimination case against the hospital claiming bias because of race and disability — Native American and alcoholism. The case eventually ended up in district court and then before the Montana Supreme Court.
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The estate contended that the county was partially responsible, citing other similar cases where counties were held liable.
In one case, the court said, an inmate was returned from Montana to Florida via a prisoner bus. Montana had a contract with the prisoner transportation company to return the prisoner.
The bus driver refused to stop so prisoners could relieve themselves, forcing them to urinate on the bus. The driver deliberately swerved the bus so the urine would fall upon the inmates. The driver lost control and the inmates were injured.
In that case, there was a definite contract between the state and the bus company, so the state was partially responsible, the court ruled.
“The question here is whether Hill County was responsible for (Northern Montana Hospital’s) action,” Justice Jim Rice wrote in the court’s decision.
But the court found that there was no written or verbal agreement between the hospital and the county to take care of ailing prisoners. Longsoldier was taken to the hospital just as anyone else would bring a person to the emergency room.
The county’s call for an ambulance could not be considered a formal agreement, the court ruled.
Therefore, “Hill County is not vicariously liable for medical negligence committed by NMH,” Rice said in his ruling.
Justices Ingrid Gustafson, Laurie McKinnon, Beth Baker and James Shea concurred with the ruling.
Justice Dirk Sandefur, who wrote the initial decision when he was a district court judge, did not participate in the Supreme Court’s decision.
Email John Kelleher at firstname.lastname@example.org