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$177,000 Awarded in California Jail Medical Neglect Trial

by John E. Dannenberg

On March 26, 2003, an Orange County, California Superior Court jury returned a verdict of $77,000 in compensatory damages against Orange County and County Sheriff Mike Carona, plus $100,000 in punitive damages, for ignoring a jail prisoner's known medical needs and thereby causing him undue-pain and suffering. However, the jury denied concurrent claims made against ten deputies for allegations of police brutality.

When Robert Carter was booked into the Orange County jail on February 16, 2000, he notified the nurse of his preexisting medical conditions of angina, seizure disorder, borderline diabetes and high blood pressure for which he was taking dilantin, phenobarbitol and nitroglycerin. Even though he was accommodated with a lower bunk slip, a deputy put him in an upper bunk. Two days later, Carter fell from the bunk and fractured his right thumb. After outside emergency medical treatment, he was placed in the Medical Module pending thumb surgery on February 27.

On February 22, Carter had chest pains at the nurse's station, became dizzy and sat down. A deputy ordered Carter to get up and return to his housing. When Carter was unable to do so, the deputy pepper-sprayed him, following which two deputies dragged him back to his cell.

When Carter was in the day room on February 24 receiving medications from a nurse, deputies ordered him back to his cell. There, Carter claimed two deputies hog-tied him and punched him in the groin, jaw and body - then, put him in isolation, where he experienced severe chest pains suggesting a heart attack. He was taken to the outside medical facility, where nurses also noted his groin injuries.

On March 4, he was offered medications at 3:30 a.m, but declined them without also getting food. Thereupon, a guard struck him in the jaw with a pepper spray can while another guard held him up, after which he was knocked to the ground and pepper-sprayed. Other deputies proceeded to kick and punch him in the presence of a sergeant, who did not intervene.

Carter sued in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for excessive force and deliberate indifference to his known medical needs. Sheriff Carona was sued for negligence and failure to train and supervise the deputies.

Represented by attorneys Milton C. Grimes of Los Angeles and Vicki I. Sarmiento of Pasadena in a four week trial, on March 26, 2003, Carter won verdicts for violation of unspecified Constitutional rights and $27,000 for past medical costs, $50,000 for past pain and suffering, plus $100,000 in punitive damages. The total exceeded the original demand of $150,000 against all defendants. The jury returned verdicts exonerating all ten deputies as to alleged Constitutional violations arising out of excessive force or deliberate indifference to Carter's medical needs, and also rendered verdicts exonerating Carona and his deputies as to state law claims of negligence, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Because the jury did not specify who should pay the punitive damages, the trial judge assessed them against Sheriff Carona. See: Carter v. County of Orange, et al., Orange County Superior Court No. OICC 02437.

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Related legal case

Carter v. County of Orange, et al