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$565,500 Jury Verdict in Montana Jail Prisoner’s Wrongful Death Suit

On October 24, 2014, a Montana state jury found Missoula County liable in the wrongful death of a jail prisoner and assessed an award of $565,500 against the county. The county agreed not to appeal and to pay within two weeks. A private health care provider settled confidentially prior to trial.

Heather Wasson, 31, who had been previously convicted of felony drug possession, theft, and check fraud, was arrested in her home at 5:00 a.m. after her probation officer requested a 72-hour ‘’hold" because she was concerned that Wasson might be violating her probation by using drugs and/or alcohol. On the police car video, she is uncooperative and belligerent, threatening to kill the officer and herself and begging to be taken to an addiction treatment center. Eight police officers removed her from the squad car and dragged her backwards to an isolation cell with her hands cuffed behind her back.

During booking, she admitted drinking "lots of Vodka daily," saying she had tried to stop, but had severe withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, nausea, shakes, sweating and seizures. As a prisoner in isolation with possible alcohol withdrawal complications and on suicide watch, jail policy was to observe her continuously on the video monitors in her cell and every 15 minutes in person. Wasson had an alcohol withdrawal seizure 36 hours into her incarceration and died. Her body was discovered 1 hour and 19 minutes later. Wasson's estate filed suit against Missoula County and Spectrum.

The county contracted with Spectrum for prisoners' health care. Wasson's estate entered into a confidential settlement with Spectrum five days prior to trial. In videotaped trial testimony, Spectrum nurses said they were never told that Wasson had repeatedly vomited prior to her seizure and, if they had been so informed, they would have treated her for withdrawal. Their testimony and that of jail Captain Kolwaski proved multiple violations of jail policy during Wasson's incarceration such that the estate did not feel the need to put on its pre-approved experts on jail procedures.

During trial, Kolwaski presented a videotape of Wasson, claiming it proved that she never told anyone she was vomiting and "looked O.K." on the live and taped video feeds. However, Wasson's sister had obtained the videotapes of Wasson's cell long before the suit was filed and the estate was able to prove that the captain's version had been edited to exclude Wasson's complaining of nausea four different times, including a couple of hours prior to the fatal seizure.

The jury was so upset with the deliberate deception that, despite the stipulation that Wasson had no history of employment and a poor relationship with her family due to her addiction, it set damages at $780,000 for wrongful death, $90,000 for survival and apportioned 65% comparative negligence to the county and 35% to Wasson for a total award of $565,500 to the estate. The estate was represented by Billings attorneys A. Christopher Edwards, A. Clifford Edwards and Roger W. Frickle. See: Wasson by Diem v. Missoula Co., Missoula District Court, Montana, DV-11-622.

Additional Source: Montana Law Week

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Related legal case

Wasson by Diem v. Missoula Co.