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Judge rules against Davis County, jail nurse in civil suit over 2016 inmate death

By Deborah Wilber - | Jul 26, 2022

Tom R. Smedes, Special to the Standard-Examiner

In this photo taken Friday, March 10, 2017, in Reno, Nevada, Cynthia Farnham-Stella holds a portrait of her children, from left to right: Anthony Stella, Ali Diggs, Ashley Stella and Heather Miller. Her daughter Heather died Dec. 21, 2016, after being arrested on drug possession charges and booked into the Davis County Jail. An autopsy report says Miller died of a severely ruptured spleen.

FARMINGTON — Just after 8 p.m. on Friday, a verdict in the federal civil rights suit filed against Davis County and Marvin Anderson by Cynthia Farnham-Stella in the untimely death of her daughter while in custody of the Davis County Jail was read aloud in Judge Jill N. Parrish’s courtroom.

Members of the jury found by a preponderance of the evidence that Anderson, former nurse for the county jail, violated Miller’s federal constitutional rights while Davis County was found to have violated her federal and state constitutional rights.

A monetary judgement of $300,000 was imposed against Anderson for showing deliberate indifference to Miller’s medical needs when she fell to the concrete floor from a top bunk in her cell on Dec. 21, 2016, rupturing her spleen.

Anderson, however, will not be responsible to pay the judgement due to the fact that he was employed by the county. Under Utah law, if an employee commits a constitutional violation while under employment, the county is responsible for compensatory damages.

Davis County is tagged with a $7.7 million fine for failing to run the jail in a constitutionally safe manner.

SARAH WELLIVER, Standard-Examiner file photo

Cynthia Farnham-Stella talks about the death of her daughter Heather Miller during a press conference Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, inside the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Miller was one of six reported individuals in 2016 to die while in custody at Davis County Jail. Farnham-Stella and attorney Tad Draper announced the filing of a civil rights suit over Miller’s death.

Farnham-Stella was awarded $2 million for the loss of her relationship with her daughter, who was 28 years old at the time of her death.

According to Daniel Baczynski, one of Farnham-Stella’s attorneys, the verdict came as a shock.

“Not in our wildest dreams did we think we would get quite that much,” he said.

It has never been about money, said Farnham-Stella, who left all decisions regarding compensatory damages to her lawyers. In the six years following her daughter’s death, she has worked to change how jails report in-custody deaths, intake drug assessments and nursing protocols.

During last week’s trial, Dr. Kennon Tubbs testified for the defense in regard to nursing protocols as the medical director for multiple county jails in Utah and Wyoming, as well as the Utah State Prison.

In giving testimony, Tubbs said there was no way to know what the rate of blood loss would have been in Miller’s case. She lost approximately 1.3 liters of blood, according to the medical examiner.

Baczynski acknowledged the doctor’s statement to be true to some extent because no vitals were ever taken on Miller after her approximate 5 ½-foot fall from her bunk at 5:55 p.m. to start a baseline, he said.

Dr. Kenneth Starr, an emergency physician in Arroyo Grande, California, testified on behalf of Farnham-Stella, saying bleeding would have begun at the time of Miller’s fall when her spleen ruptured.

“There would have been noticeable signs, some in vitals and some in physical appearance, within one hour,” Starr testified.

According to reports provided by the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, Miller’s condition went unnoticed for more than two hours until a jail deputy noticed her lying on the floor in a state of undress with a gash on her chin around 8 pm.

In reporting Miller’s condition to Anderson and fellow medical staff, a jail clerk testified during the trial that the deputy was told by nurses “not to think too hard about it.”

The deputy, still concerned about Miller’s condition, went to his supervisor and brought Miller, who reportedly was cold, wet, gray in color and seizing, to a medical unit.

Miller is said to have been bleeding internally from 5:55 to 8:40 p.m., when paramedics arrived and found Miller’s pupils were fixed, dilated and not responding to light.

Medical staff at McKay-Dee Hospital tended to Miller for 41 minutes before she was pronounced dead. During that time, a number of diagnostics were performed on Miller, including an ultrasound of the heart.

Jesse Trentadue, an attorney for the county, claimed that had hospital staff viewed her spleen during the ultrasound, Miller would be alive today.

The state medical examiner found no external trauma present on Miller’s body; however, an internal examination revealed near complete transection of the spleen.

During the trial, the defense argued jail staff would not have been able to diagnose a ruptured spleen as it is difficult to diagnose and usually requires an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI.

Tad Draper, another of Farnham-Stella’s attorneys, said a ruptured spleen diagnosis wasn’t necessary and jail staff should have realized that a person who couldn’t stand or walk needed medical attention.

“It’s the dumbest damn thing to not find out why,” Draper said, using the example of a dog that has been hit by a car and is unable to walk. “No expects the owner to diagnose the dog, but you know he needs medical attention so you take to him to a vet.”

At the time of Miller’s death, the Davis County Jail had no nursing protocols in place for staff. When asked under oath if he would adhere to written medical protocols, such as taking vital signs following an incident, Anderson, who is still employed at the jail, said, “possibly, I may or may not.”

Draper said the jail made a vain attempt to convince the public of change following Miller’s death with a new medical wing. According to him, the facility means nothing if the people staffing it do not have protocols or are not held accountable to them.

The trial has been, tough Farnham-Stella said, bringing back all the hurt and anger she felt after her daughter’s death. But in the end, she was able to get justice for her “honey bunny.”

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