Lawsuit over Michigan inmate's overdose death may continue, federal appeals court says

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The mother of a prisoner who died from a drug overdose can continue her lawsuit against some Michigan Department of Corrections officials, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Seth Michael Zakora died from a fentanyl overdose at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater on Jan. 22, 2017. He was 21.

His mother, Brandy Zakora-Haeck, sued prison and Michigan State Police officials in 2019, alleging that officials knew drug smuggling was rampant at the prison but failed to properly investigate or were even involved in the smuggling.

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff dismissed the lawsuit in 2021 after determining that Zakora-Haeck had failed to demonstrate any plausible constitutional violations.

But in a 2-1 ruling Wednesday, a panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The panel upheld the dismissal of claims against the Michigan State Police and MDOC Director Heidi Washington, but said Zakora-Haeck's lawsuit may continue against some other prison officials, on constitutional claims of failure to protect and failure to supervise.

Two other prisoners in Zakora's unit were allegedly hospitalized for drug overdoses in the two days before his death, but no investigation was undertaken, the panel said in summarizing the case. It's also alleged that a prisoner gave officials at Lakeland detailed information about a smuggling ring and how it was operating, the court noted.

Zakora's mother "makes serious allegations of misconduct within Lakeland," wrote Circuit Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, in the majority opinion.

"Consider, for example, the ... allegations that top prison officials instructed their subordinates not to investigate known drug smuggling at Lakeland and that other officials were themselves involved in supplying the lethal drugs to Zakora."

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Though disputed, such allegations must be treated as true at this stage of the case, Gilman wrote.

"Incarcerated individuals are entitled to some protections that non-incarcerated persons do not receive. In the present case, the state of Michigan placed Zakora in custody and thereby restrained his liberty such that he did not have the freedom to distance himself from a dangerous environment."

Zakora's mother said she is grateful for the ruling. "After five years with zero answers, maybe now MDOC can be held accountable," she said in an email to the Free Press.

Officials at the department and the Attorney General's Office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Madeline Sinkovich, a Detroit attorney representing Zakora's family, was not immediately available for comment.

The ruling rejected Zakora's request to file an amended complaint in the case, which would contain new allegations against additional defendants.

In a sharply worded dissent, Chief Judge Jeffrey Sutton said the remaining defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, and the majority is needlessly extending the litigation by sending the case back to the district judge to make that ruling.

Also, "Zakora never argues that her son consumed fentanyl involuntarily," Sutton wrote.

"Any risk from the availability of drugs did not become serious until he chose to use them."

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Lawsuit over Michigan inmate's overdose death can continue