Because one inmate withdrawing from methamphetamine was vomiting in the medical unit, Davis County Jail nurses decided not to bring in another apparent meth user who had fallen from her bunk.
That juggling of drugged inmates on the night of Dec. 21, 2016, is being cited by county attorneys in their defense against a wrongful-death lawsuit in which jail nurses are accused of failing to properly care for the second woman, who soon died.
The civil suit battle in Salt Lake City U.S. District Court is now 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 this month by the two sides.
Cynthia Stella of Reno, Nevada, filed suit last year against then-Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson, jail nursing supervisor James Ondricek, and nurse Marvin Anderson, over the death of Stella’s daughter, Heather Miller, 28.
Stella’s attorneys argue the jail violated Miller’s constitutional rights to adequate medical care by allegedly exhibiting deliberate indifference to the woman’s plight.
Miller was one of six inmates who died in the Davis jail in 2016, a record year for deaths behind bars in Utah’s county lockups. A 2018 survey by a state agency examining jail deaths determined that 27 deaths were reported statewide.
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.”
In their response Jan. 25, Stella’s attorneys pointed out that both nurses admitted during an Attorney General’s Office investigation that Miller should have been taken to medical solely due to her inability to walk without assistance after the fall.
Furthermore, the state of the medical unit “in no way excuses” Anderson’s failure to take Miller’s vital signs, the basic step expected of jail nurses in such incidents, Stella’s attorneys said.
The county’s lawyers listed numerous other circumstances they said warrant dismissal of the suit.
About two hours after the fall, a guard noticed Miller was lying on the floor of her cell, mostly naked, with a cut on her chin and “her body in a strange position.” The guard reported this to the medical staff but was told not to “worry too much about it.”
The county defense did not dispute that, but said “this was the same behavior that is exhibited by inmates who are withdrawing from methamphetamine.”
The jail had no written medical protocols covering the handling of injuries to inmates, relying instead on standard nursing practices.
“The absence of such a protocol for assessing inmate falls made no difference in Ms. Miller’s case,” the county argued, because in any event, spleen injuries are difficult to diagnose outside a hospital.
Jailers alarmed by Miller’s condition eventually wheeled her to the medical unit, where paramedics were called. She died later an an Ogden hospital.
An autopsy determined Miller slowly bled to death internally.
“Even if Ms. Miller had been placed in the infirmary for close monitoring it is highly unlikely that the nursing staff would have been able to diagnose and treat this rapidly changing and insidious diagnosis,” the county said.
The county also said it was not even certain that the bunk fall caused the split spleen, because Miller apparently fell again in the second cell, suffering the cut on her chin.
The nurses provided “objectively reasonable” care to Miller and therefore deserve qualified immunity from liability for civil damages, the county argued.
Attorneys also said the nurses and Richardson are not liable because the contract jail doctor, Russell Wood, is responsible for the jail medical operation, and Wood was not named in the suit.
But written medical protocols are mandated in the jail’s own policy manual, Stella’s attorneys noted.
“The practice of not maintaining written protocols violates the standard of care in jails and serves as evidence that defendants were aware of the risks associated with the practice,” the plaintiffs’ document said.
“Because medical protocols are considered essential to providing uniform and adequate care, the practice of operating a jail without this essential component constitutes deliberate indifference,” it said. “Considering Davis County Jail was so far outside the accepted practices of medical care, it was highly predictable that operating without protocols would result in substandard care.”