SALT LAKE CITY — An attorney for Davis County has attacked the credibility of three expert witnesses who concluded the county jail fatally fumbled the care of an inmate who bled to death of a ruptured spleen.
The action comes after lawyers representing the mother of inmate Heather Miller filed documents in which those witnesses argued Miller’s life could have been saved if not for inaction by jail personnel after the inmate fell off a top bunk Dec. 21, 2016.
Miller’s case is a touchstone in Utah’s ongoing debate over inmate care in county jails. She was one of 27 people who died in Utah jails in 2016, prompting the Legislature to require reporting of deaths and reviews of the handling of drug-addicted inmates.
Miller, 28, who had been arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge, died at an Ogden hospital about four hours after the fall in the Farmington jail.
A jail nurse did not take Miller’s vital signs, assuming she was withdrawing from methamphetamine and not seriously injured, according to public records.
The jail moved Miller to a cell with a bottom bunk and provided no medical monitoring. She got to the second cell by sliding down a stairway on her buttocks and then rode in a wheelchair.
The circumstances are being aired out before Judge Jill Parrish in U.S. District Court. Miller’s mother, Cynthia Stella of Reno, Nevada, in 2018 sued Davis County, then-Sheriff Todd Richardson and two nurses alleging they were deliberately indifferent to the inmate’s well-being.
Parrish heard arguments May 7 and is now weighing the county’s contention that the expert-witness statements are technically inadmissible and are otherwise deficient to be considered either at trial or in Parrish’s anticipated pretrial rulings.
In mid-May, Stella’s attorneys filed declarations by registered nurse Deborah Schultz, a veteran jail health care auditor and inspector for the Santa Barbara County, California, health board; Dr. Ken Starr, a 22-year ER physician and emergency medicine reviewer for the California Medical Board; and Todd Vinger, a longtime Nevada jail commander.
“It is my professional opinion that virtually no medical care was administered ... to Miller after her fall from a top bunk, demonstrating complete disregard for the Utah Nurse Practice Act,” Schultz’s declaration said.
Schultz said the lack of care “contributed to her early and untimely death.”
She added, “... with careful monitoring, her deteriorating condition, through vital sign checks and level of consciousness checks, would have alerted the medical staff to intervene sooner.
“Any patient who requires the need to be transported via wheelchair after a fall from a top bunk should be an obvious indication that further evaluation is necessary, especially when prior to the fall, Heather was able to walk under her own power.”
Schultz said it showed “complete disregard for Heather’s wellbeing and lack of sound nursing judgment.”
Attorney Jesse Trentadue, representing Davis County, filed a response Monday asserting Schultz’s “opinions are speculation because they are not given to a reasonable degree of professional certainty ... and there is no evidence in the record that she has ever seen a patient with a ruptured spleen much less been involved in treating patients who present with that injury.”
The county’s own expert witness, Dr. Kennon Tubbs, who runs jail medical operations in several counties in Utah and Wyoming, has said spleen injuries are “insidious” and realistically cannot be diagnosed in a jail.
Trentadue also discounted the declaration by Starr, who said that had Miller been monitored, she could have been rushed to surgery and “she would have a very high likelihood of survival.”
Vinger, who reviewed dozens of documents from the various official investigations of the death, said he agreed with one jail deputy who said the jail nurses were “being lazy.”
Vinger also found it “alarming” that the jail had 30 documented injuries due to falls from top bunks over a three-year period and yet “no attempts have been made to reduce the number of falls or to help lessen the effects of these falls.”
He said other jails have changed bunk configurations to reduce fall risks and severity of injuries.
Trentadue challenged Vinger’s declaration as well, saying the Nevadan “is a retired police officer and not, therefore, qualified to offer the opinion as to Ms. Miller’s medical care.”
“None of his opinions are given with any degree of professional certainty, which makes them speculative,” Trentadue said.
Stella’s suit seeks an injunction requiring improved inmate medical care to correct the alleged unconstitutional conditions, plus any monetary damages the court may award.