FARMINGTON — More than four years after a Davis County Jail inmate bled to death internally while a nurse failed to check her vital signs, a federal civil rights suit over the death has moved one step closer to trial.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected Davis County’s appeal of a lower court decision against jail nurse Marvin Anderson and the county.
The county appealed after U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish in Salt Lake City ruled in September 2019 that a reasonable jury could conclude Anderson and the county were deliberately indifferent to Heather Miller’s medical care surrounding her deadly fall from a jail bunk on Dec. 21, 2016.
An autopsy revealed Miller, arrested the day before on a drug possession charge, had her spleen split nearly in half in the fall and that she lost 1.3 liters of blood.
The 28-year-old Miller’s mother, Cynthia Stella, sued in 2018, alleging systemic problems led to lax care. Anderson failed to check Miller’s vital signs and she was given Tylenol and moved to another cell, dying a few hours later after being rushed to a hospital.
At issue is whether Anderson had qualified immunity, a doctrine that says public employees cannot suffer civil liability unless their conduct is demonstrably unreasonable.
Parrish declined to grant Anderson immunity, saying disputed facts remain and should be left to a jury to decide.
The circuit court said the county’s argument that the evidence did not establish Anderson’s awareness of the need for greater attention to Miller was not even eligible to be considered on appeal at this stage.
The effect of Parrish’s ruling, and now the decision by the appeals court, is that the case could be set for trial.
However, the county still could ask the circuit court to reconsider its ruling or it could file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Daniel Baczynski, one of Stella’s lawyers, said Thursday he does not expect the county to appeal. Even if the county does not appeal, a trial could not occur until early 2022 at the soonest, Baczynski said, because COVID-19 has piled up huge case backlogs.
Efforts to contact Jesse Trentadue, a county indemnity pool attorney representing the county in the Miller case, were not immediately successful.
Baczynski said the thrust of the suit is the jail’s lack of nursing protocols at the time of Miller’s death, and a lack of county resources devoted to the medical care of inmates.
“For the most part,” he said, the county has addressed those issues since Miller died.
Former Sheriff Todd Richardson, who was in office at the time, decided that nursing protocols would be restored in the jail. And in December 2019, the county commission approved a $9 million bond package for a new jail medical wing.
“But from our perspective, the remaining issue is accountability,” Baczynski said. “Nobody has come out and said, ‘What we did was wrong,’ and no one has taken responsibility, and a young woman has died because of it.”
Stella’s attorneys also tried to overturn Parrish’s granting of qualified immunity to Richardson. But because it rejected the county’s appeal on Anderson’s liability, the circuit court said it did not need to consider those related appeals.
Baczynski said Stella’s side still could appeal against Richardson after a trial, if it came to that.
During 2016, 25 inmates died in Utah’s county jails, including six in the Davis jail. The toll sparked legislation to track jail deaths and mandate that steps are taken to help protect inmates from suicide and drug issues.
The current Sheriff, Kelly Sparks, has beefed up medical screening of incoming inmates and has teamed with Davis Behavioral Health in a receiving center operation in the jail work release center. There, nonviolent arrestees have an option to avoid incarceration if they agree to accept drug or mental health treatment instead.