Our Client’s Son Dies in a Local Jail
In December 2014, an inmate in a local jail was found dead in his cell in the jail’s infirmary. The inmate had AIDS. He had only been in the jail for a few days on a probation violation. Shortly after coming into the jail, he started experiencing respiratory symptoms. He had difficultly breathing and was coughing. His oxygen saturation levels were low.
The medical staff in the jail worked for a private company that contracted with the jail to provide medical care to inmates. The nursing staff and the doctors provided the inmate with breathing treatments and antibiotics. The breathing treatments would only help temporarily before the shortness of breath, coughing, and low oxygen saturation levels would return. Symptoms like this are problematic for healthy people, but they are very concerning for someone who has AIDS. This is because AIDS compromises the body’s immune system and reduces the patient’s ability to fight infections. The medical staff knew that our client had AIDS, and they knew he was having signs of a serious respiratory illness. Despite this knowledge, they kept him in the jail and refused to send him to a hospital, where his condition could have been better managed.
Throughout the night prior to his death and into the early morning hours, our client’s condition worsened. The nurse on duty for the overnight shift and the jailer had to enter his cell multiple times because the inmate was asking for help. These encounters were not properly documented by the nurse. Around the time the shift changed for the jailers, a jailer who was coming on duty walked by the inmate’s cell and looked through the window on the cell door. He saw the inmate lying on the floor. The jailer knocked on the door, but there was no response. He entered the cell and found the inmate unresponsive. He called for help, but it was too late. He was dead. He was only 32 years old.
An autopsy revealed that the inmate died of pneumonia. As with all respiratory illnesses, pneumonia in AIDS patients is a very serious condition that needs to be managed appropriately.
The Inmate’s Mother Hires The Champion Firm
Within weeks of his death, the inmate’s mother hired The Champion Firm. The case was referred to us after multiple lawyers turned the case down. They thought the case would be too difficult. When Darl Champion met with the mother, he felt that something sounded unusual about the circumstances of her son’s death. While he did not have all the facts at the time, he was determined to pursue the case and seek justice.
We immediately sent out Open Records Act requests to the Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation seeking documents related to the incarceration and the investigation into the death. Both agencies responded that the case was still under investigation, so the records would not be produced. This was not unusual. While governmental records can be requested under Georgia’s Open Records Act, the government agency that has the documents can object to producing them if they are related to an ongoing investigation. It is normal for the investigation into the death of an inmate to take at least several weeks.
We also sought the medical records from the private company that provided medical care at the jail. They ignored our initial request. We sent another letter asking for the records. This time their legal counsel responded that they would produce them if we could produce documentation showing our client had been appointed as the representative of her son’s estate. This was not a legal requirement and appeared to be a delay tactic. The law allows a deceased person’s next of kin to obtain the medical records. We responded and included the relevant law with a request that the records be produced immediately or we would sue. This time they produced the medical records.
The Champion Firm Finds Evidence of Misconduct
In the months that followed, we followed up on our Open Records Act requests multiple times. We wanted to see if the investigation had concluded so that the records could be produced. Each time we were told the investigation was still ongoing. This was unusual. While it is normal for an inmate death investigation to take several weeks, they normally do not take longer than a few months if there is no wrongdoing. After about six months of being told that the investigation was still open, we started to believe that the investigation had uncovered some evidence of wrongdoing.
After more than a year had passed, the District Attorney asked to meet with us and our client. During the meeting, the District Attorney informed us that the investigation had uncovered evidence that the jailer had not been properly monitoring the inmate. County policy required that jailers check on an inmate who is in the infirmary every 15 minutes. The surveillance video footage from outside the cell showed that the visual cell checks were not done. To make matters worse, the jailer who was on duty had fabricated his records to show that he had done the 15 minute cell checks.
The Champion Firm Files a Lawsuit in Federal Court
When we learned the information about the violation of county policy, we prepared to file a lawsuit. We planned to sue both the individual jailer on duty at the time, as well as the medical staff and their company. The claims against the medical staff would involve claims of medical negligence, which require expert testimony to prove. As a result, we hired an expert who is a doctor with extensive experience providing medical care to inmates in jails and prisons. He provided us with an affidavit that outlined multiple acts of negligence on the part of the medical staff. We also contacted an infectious disease expert to testify about how our client’s son would have likely survived had he been sent to a hospital and received the proper treatment.
Shortly before the two-year anniversary of the day our client’s son died, we filed a lawsuit in federal court. The case was filed in the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. We sued multiple defendants, including the individual jailer, the nurses and doctors who provided medical care to the inmate, and the private company that employed the medical staff. We asserted claims for medical malpractice under state law, as well as federal claims for deliberate indifference to the inmate’s serious medical needs in violation of the United States Constitution.
The Champion Firm Uncovers More Evidence of Misconduct
Once we filed the lawsuit, we requested and obtained documents and started scheduling depositions. The first person whose deposition we took was the jailer who was on duty that night. He admitted he did not do the required cell checks. He also provided key information about what happened that night and how it was contrary to what the nurse wrote in the medical records. In particular, the nurse wrote in her medical records that the inmate was not in any distress when she checked on him. However, the jailer admitted he had been in distress and he had made multiple requests for help.
One of the key pieces of evidence we were able to obtain in discovery was the surveillance video from outside the cell. We examined it closely and compared it to the nurse’s medical records. Our review showed that the nurse’s records did not add up. She wrote in the records that she had checked on our client at certain times when she had not. She also wrote his vital signs in the records from the various interactions, but from the camera footage we could tell that she never took our client’s vital signs. In fact, on more than one occasion when she entered his cell she did not even have the equipment with her to check his vitals.
One of the more shocking aspects of the surveillance video was that it showed our client collapsing to the ground more than an hour before he was found dead. Although the camera was positioned in the hall, you could see it through the window on the cell door. After this happened, the nurse walked by the cell more than once. Each time she looked in she saw him lying on the floor, but she did nothing to check on him other than just looking through the window on the door.
We took multiple depositions after the first deposition involving the jailer. One of the persons we deposed was the medical doctor who was one of the last medical providers to treat the inmate. He admitted that the inmate should have been placed in a room that had a camera in the actual cell so he could be more easily monitored from the guard station. He also admitted that one of the handwritten orders in his medical records that reduced his prescription antibiotics was not in the doctor’s handwriting. Somebody else had added something to one of the doctor’s orders after he signed it. The doctor had no explanation for who did this or why it happened. He also admitted that the inmate should have been taken to the hospital if he was having trouble breathing through the night.
The Defendants Agree to Settle
While we were in the process of scheduling additional depositions, including the deposition of the nurse who was on duty when our client’s son died, the Defendants asked to go to mediation. Nearly three years after the death and a year after filing a lawsuit, we attended mediation. Darl Champion handled the mediation. He did a detailed presentation that included video excerpts from the surveillance video that showed the nurse’s medical records were wrong. She had not checked on the inmate at the times she said she did, and she did not check his vital signs when she said she did. After more than seven hours at mediation, the parties reached a confidential settlement that conclusively resolved all the claims.
If your loved one died because of another party’s negligence or wrongful action, you may be able to file a claim. To learn more, please contact The Champion Firm, P.C.