Heather Miller selfie

Heather Ashton Miller, 28, died after being arrested on drug possession charges and booked into the Davis County Jail on Dec. 20, 2016. An autopsy report said Miller died of a severely ruptured spleen. Her mother, Cynthia Stella, has filed a wrongful-death suit against the county.

Davis County remains on the hook for potential civil liability in the death of an inmate who fell from a jail bunk and suffered massive internal bleeding, a federal judge has ruled.

A reasonable jury could conclude the county was deliberately indifferent to the danger of bunk falls, U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish ruled Sept. 21 in Salt Lake City.

Heather Miller, 28, died Dec. 21, 2016, and her mother, Cynthia Stella, sued the county and three county personnel in 2018.

Parrish’s ruling was in response to the county’s request that she reconsider her Sept. 24, 2019, ruling against the county.

The judge had ruled that Davis County Jail nurse Marvin Anderson and the county did not qualify for immunity from liability and that the allegations against them could proceed toward trial.

Her 2019 ruling did grant qualified immunity to Todd Richardson, who was sheriff in 2016, and jail nursing supervisor James Ondricek.

Meanwhile, two issues in the case are on appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Stella’s attorneys have asked the appeals court to strip Richardson of qualified immunity, while the county’s legal team wants the court to grant immunity to Anderson.

Regarding the county’s institutional liability, Parrish said a jury could consider whether the county was exposed by its “failure to enact a policy to ensure that jail nurses and staff have the essential training, tools, preparation, and authority to respond to the recurring medical needs of inmates who have medical emergencies after falling from their bunks.”

She referred to case evidence that said inmates fall from top bunks about once a month in the Davis jail.

A county may be liable “not just for its actions, but also for its failure to act in certain circumstances,” Parrish said.

Such a failure could include not establishing “a policy to prevent a pattern or obvious risk of constitutional violations by its employees,” she said.

According to court records, Anderson did not check Miller’s vital signs and had her put in a lightly monitored cell in which her nearly severed spleen continued to bleed for almost three hours until jail guards noticed she was barely conscious.

In a court deposition, Anderson said he thought Miller was withdrawing from narcotics, and added he was biased to assume such a condition because it was so common among jail inmates.

Stella said by telephone Thursday she was gratified by Parrish’s most recent ruling and is looking forward to an upcoming circuit court hearing on the other appeals.

Miller’s death was one of six in the Davis County Jail in 2016, the most in the state that year. A record 25 deaths in Utah’s county jails prompted the Legislature to mandate annual jail death reports and ongoing state review of fatality causes behind bars.

Davis County is working on a more than $9 million project to build a new medical observation unit at the jail to improve care for inmates.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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