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Oregon Jail Pneumonia Death Lawsuit Settles for $905,000

The estate of a woman who died of pneumonia at the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) in Portland, Oregon has agreed to settle a federal wrongful death suit for $905,000.

Homeless heroin addict Holly Jean Casey, 36, was arrested on January 3, 2008 for failure to appear in court on a misdemeanor theft charge.

Casey told police officers that her spleen, which fights infections, had been surgically removed, and that she had pneumonia and was going to the hospital. The officers advised jail staff of Casey’s medical condition when they booked her into MCDC at 2:46 p.m.

An hour later, Casey was evaluated by Nurse Rebecca Watts Jacobs. Casey appeared to be dehydrated, so Watts Jacobs gave her some water. She also noted that Casey had no spleen, suffered from lupus and was sick with a history of recent pneumonia. Watts Jacobs asked another nurse to listen to Casey’s lungs. However, neither nurse used an available pulse oximeter to check Casey’s oxygen saturation level. Had they done so, Casey’s estate alleged, they would have realized that she needed emergency medical care. Instead, Watts Jacobs cleared Casey for admission into the jail with no housing restrictions.

“I’ve got pneumonia for 3 days. Won’t go away. I have difficulty breathing. It hurts bad. I have no energy. I have lupus and no spleen,” Casey wrote in a medical request at about 5:00 p.m.

Guards and nurses ignored Casey’s request for medical care. They treated her as “just another junkie,” said attorney Matthew D. Kaplan, who represented Casey’s estate along with attorney Hala J. Gores.

At least 20 prisoners heard Casey repeatedly cry for help and push her call light throughout the night, but jail staff failed to respond. “She was pressing the button all night and screaming and they chose to tune her out for most of the night and write her off as someone who’s just going through withdrawals,” said Kaplan.

At 10:25 p.m., a deputy asked Casey over the intercom what was wrong. She said she had chest pain and difficulty breathing. A nurse diagnosed Casey with asthma and another brought her an Albuterol inhaler, instructing her to take several puffs. The inhaler was provided without a doctor’s prescription.

As the night wore on, Casey’s condition deteriorated. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, please help me,” she yelled. She banged on the call light buzzer and her cell door for hours, pleading for help. According to the subsequent lawsuit, deputies yelled at her to shut up and get off the floor. They also turned off the buzzer without checking on Casey’s condition.

At 5:00 a.m., guards asked nurse Glenda J. Baxter to check on Casey twice, but she failed to do so. Two-and-a-half hours later a guard found Casey dead on the floor of her cell, cold and blue, in a semi-fetal position wearing only her underwear and a T-shirt. An autopsy determined that Casey died due to advanced pneumonia with a contributing factor of not having a spleen.

A review by prosecutors found that Casey had died of pre-existing conditions that were ignored or not properly treated by jail nurses. Baxter was later fired.

Casey’s estate filed suit in federal court against Multnomah County, Baxter and Maxim Health Systems, the company that provided nursing services at MCDC. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.37].

In November 2010 the parties reached a negotiated settlement, with Casey’s estate receiving $600,000 from Baxter, $300,000 from the county and $5,000 from Maxim. See: Wheeler v. Multnomah County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:09-cv-01518-AC.

Source: The Oregonian

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Related legal case

Wheeler v. Multnomah County