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$7 Million in Settlements in Colorado Jail Prisoner’s Death from Medical Negligence

$7 Million in Settlements in Colorado Jail Prisoner’s Death from Medical Negligence

by David M. Reutter

The Denver Health Medical Center has settled a claim of negligent care for $4 million after releasing a prisoner with internal injuries who later died. Six months later, the Denver City Council approved an additional $3 million settlement.

Emily Rae Rice, 24, died at the Denver City Jail on February 19, 2006 – only 20 hours after she was released from a hospital and booked into the facility. She had been arrested on outstanding traffic warrants after crashing her car, and was suspected of being intoxicated.

Rice was taken to the Denver Health Medical Center for evaluation. That evaluation only found a shoulder contusion; consequently, she was given Ibuprofen and released into the Sheriff’s custody. Despite repeated complaints of pain over the next 20 hours, jail guards did not return her to the hospital or provide medical care. Rice died in her cell of internal bleeding caused by a lacerated spleen and liver.

Her estate then sued the City and County of Denver and the Medical Center. On May 30, 2008 the Denver Health Medical Center settled the suit for $4 million “to avoid protracted court proceedings that could have lasted for years,” the hospital said in a statement. In addition to the monetary settlement, the Medical Center also agreed to provide more training, establish a protocol to identify patients heading to jail who may need monitoring, and require nurses to check vital signs every four hours for 24 hours after a patient is discharged to the custody of the Sheriff’s office.

The hospital’s position was in stark contrast to that of city and county officials, at least initially. “There has been a significant cover-up,” said attorney Darold W. Killmer, who represents Rice’s estate. “There have been so-called investigations which were designed to whitewash the problem. Every investigation officially launched by the city of which we are aware has been designed to help them defend themselves rather than to find the truth.”

Internal investigations by the Sheriff’s office resulted in three-day suspensions for two deputies who did not make required checks in Rice’s unit, and then falsified reports claiming they had. Another deputy resigned after lying to investigators.

Portions of the video that tracked Rice’s movements within the jail on February 18, 2006 were missing. “The city’s excuse is that it was an equipment malfunction,” said Killmer. “But the compelling evidence is that it wasn’t a malfunction. It was much more likely a product of intentional editing.” The city also had refused to produce documents critical to the case, according to Killmer.

The Denver City Council, apparently acknowledging problems in defending against the lawsuit, approved a $3 million settlement on behalf of the city and county on November 17, 2008. As part of the settlement the jail will annually discuss Rice’s death at a roll call meeting, and will reform the employee disciplinary system. The Sheriff’s office has already installed a new video system as well as a system that tracks guards to ensure they make their rounds. “We call those ‘Emily’s rights,’” said Killmer.

Of the city and county’s $3 million settlement, $1.9 million will go to Rice’s parents, $100,000 to Rice’s estate and $1 million to Killmer’s law firm, Killmer Lane & Newman LLP. See: Estate of Emily Rice v. City and County of Denver, Colorado, U.S.D.C. (D. Co.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01571-MSK-BNB.

Additional sources: Associated Press, Denver Post

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Related legal case

Estate of Emily Rice v. City and County of Denver, Colorado

Complaint, settlement and other case documents are available in the brief bank.