NEW TAZEWELL, Tenn. (WATE) — The father of a man who died at the Claiborne County Jail last year has filed a $1.5 million federal wrongful death lawsuit alleging his son died unnecessarily of a drug overdose because a police officer and jail employees failed to seek proper medical care.

New Tazewell police officer Russell Ruszowski and two unnamed corrections officers at the county jail are named as defendants in the lawsuit filed Oct. 9 in the Northern Division of the United States District Court’s Eastern District of Tennessee.

It comes one year after 26-year-old Joseph Burkhart died from heart failure as a result of a drug overdose on Oct. 10, 2021. The suit alleges that Burkhart’s constitutional right to due process was violated by the failure to seek proper medical care, resulting in needless suffering and his unnecessary death.

Burkhart was arrested on a charge of public intoxication by Ruszokowski at a gas station on Old Highway 33 on the evening of Oct. 9. The lawsuit claims Burkhart exhibited obvious signs of a drug overdose requiring emergency medical attention before he was transported to the Claiborne County Jail.

The lawsuit states Burkhart was administered Naloxone, an opioid antagonist designed to reverse opioid overdoses, not long after his arrival by the two unnamed corrections officers. The lawsuit claims that neither the corrections officers nor any other jail staff called 911 or sought emergency attention before leaving Burkhart unsupervised in a shared cell.

“Either due to lack of training or indifference, Defendant John Doe 1, Defendant John 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,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that other inmates tried unsuccessfully to get help for Burkhart. He was last seen alive around 10:45 p.m. by a correctional officer who was taking his break and recalled seeing Burkhart “moving,” according to the lawsuit.

It was not until almost 1:30 a.m. when another correctional officer found Burkhart unresponsive, according to the lawsuit. He was officially pronounced dead at 4:39 a.m. on Oct. 10, court documents state.

The lawsuit asserts that both New Tazewell and Claiborne County, “maintained a policy or custom,” of failing to train police officers and jail personnel on how to properly respond to medical emergencies. It alleges both the actions of both municipalities in addition to the actions of the officer and the jail personnel violated Burkhart’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.

The lawsuit seeks:

  • A jury trial
  • The defendants in the case to be made to answer to the complaint
  • $1,500,000 in compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, and other legal and equitable relief that the plaintiff may be entitled to
  • An award of all pre- and post-judgment interest
  • A declaratory judgment against the defendants that the practices applied were unconstitutional and an injunction placed to instruct the defendants from further actions

Read the full lawsuit here.