SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday in a case that spotlights a streak of six deaths in the Davis County Jail in 2016 and subsequent state efforts to scrutinize Utah’s local jails.
Medical care given to Heather Miller, 28, after she fell off a bunk and suffered a torn spleen is the focus of the civil suit in Salt Lake City U.S. District Court.
The case is in the hands of Judge Jill Parrish, who will rule whether to dismiss the case or send it on to trial. She is evaluating competing motions filed by the two sides in March.
Miller died Dec. 21, 2016. Hers was one of six deaths in the Davis jail that year and one of the reasons that state legislators in March 2018 passed a law requiring Utah’s county jails to file annual reports of in-custody deaths. The jails also were told to provide information on how they care for inmates who may be drug-addicted.
Miller’s mother, Cynthia Stella of Reno, Nevada, filed suit against Davis County, then-Sheriff Todd Richardson, a nurse and the jail nursing supervisor in January 2018. The county has denied allegations the care was deliberately indifferent, which is a constitutional violation.
In earlier court filings by Stella’s attorneys, three expert witnesses condemned the medical treatment given Miller.
“Had Ms. Miller’s blunt abdominal injuries been recognized earlier, it is my professional opinion that this condition would have been surgically treated and she would have a very high likelihood of survival,” Dr. Ken Starr, an authority on emergency rooms.
Starr and two other witnesses accused the jail of sloppy and unlawful responses to the woman’s fall, including not taking her vital signs.
County attorneys cited the problem of opiate withdrawal among inmates in their defense against the suit.
“It’s the product of our society, the rampant addiction to opiates or meth,” Jesse Trentadue, at attorney representing the county, said during arguments Tuesday over whether a nurse who did not take Miller’s vital signs assumed she was withdrawing from meth and was not seriously injured.
“Mistakes in medical judgment are not civil rights violations,” Trentadue said.
Parrish seemed skeptical of the county’s contention that nurses’ lack of action was inconsequential or excusable — the county asserted Miller could not have been saved even if the internal injury had been detected sooner.
The judge said it appeared nurses did “absolutely zero” to assess for significant injury in an inmate who fell six feet into a concrete floor and soon had trouble walking as jailers led her to another cell.
“Was there any evidence that she acted normally at any time after this fall,” Parrish asked.
Speaking of the nurse who failed to take Miller’s vital signs, Parrish said “his whole defense is, ‘I can blow off these symptoms because she’s in meth withdrawal.’”
She remarked that neither side had submitted evidence to define meth withdrawal symptoms.
Because one inmate withdrawing from methamphetamine was vomiting in the medical unit, jail nurses decided not to bring in Miller, another apparent meth user, after she fell, the county said in court documents.
Nurse Marvin Anderson didn’t check Miller’s vital signs after the fall and later told investigators he didn’t send her straight to the jail medical unit because he found no indication of anything serious from the tumble.
Miller also told him she was “coming off meth,” he said, so he attributed some of her condition to the presence of drugs. He had her moved downstairs to another cell block, not the medical bay, for further monitoring.
Anderson “did not put Miller in the available bed in the medical unit because she would have shared the cell with an inmate who was withdrawing from methamphetamine addiction and vomiting,” county attorneys said in a court document filed Jan. 11. “Nurse Anderson believed Ms. Miller needed a clean, quiet cell to recover.”
Stella’s attorney, Daniel Baczynski, told Parrish that had the nurse taken Miller’s vital signs and checked them again during the next two hours while she lay in the second cell, “they should have been on notice there was an internal injury.”
After a jailer noticed Miller was in distress, she was wheeled to the medical unit and then taken by ambulance to an Ogden hospital, where she was soon pronounced dead.
Attorneys also clashed over whether Richardson was responsible for the jail’s lack of medical protocols, which he had thrown out six years earlier.
Trentadue said the jail’s contract doctor was responsible for the protocols, which are required by jail policy.
But Baczynski pointed out Richardson admitted in a deposition that he was responsible to see that jail policy was followed.
Had the jail possessed medical protocols that were enforced and trained upon, Miller may not have been left to bleed to death, he said.