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San Diego County Settles Prisoner Overdose Death for $2.3 Million

by Derek Gilna

On August 2, 2016, officials in San Diego County, California agreed to settle a federal civil rights suit stemming from a prisoner’s death caused by a drug overdose at the county’s central jail.

According to the complaint, Bernard Victorianne, 28, was arrested for driving under the influence; he told a nurse during the booking process that he had swallowed a baggie of meth, “but jail staff failed to provide him with appropriate medical care.”

The lawsuit noted that Victorianne’s September 2012 death was not an isolated incident. “Deaths of 60 inmates in the San Diego County jails in a span of five years prompted a series of articles by Citybeat, a local newspaper. Citybeat reported that San Diego County had the highest mortality rate among California’s largest jail systems based on data from 2007 to 2012.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2013, p.1].

Although Victorianne had been examined at a hospital after his arrest and an X-ray did not show anything in his stomach, hospital staff issued written instructions to ensure he would receive “prompt medical attention” if he showed signs of an overdose. Yet when he arrived at the jail he was placed in solitary confinement due to his erratic behavior, which was not recognized as being drug-related.

Jail personnel failed to follow policies that required them to conduct regular counts to determine prisoners’ well-being. Then other jail employees interfered with the investigative process following Victorianne’s death, attempted to conceal evidence and prevented his family from promptly learning how he had died.

Victorianne’s parents sued in federal court, but both the individual and municipal defendants argued they had failed to file the necessary statutory notice and the complaint should therefore be dismissed. After reviewing the evidence, however, the district court disagreed.

“Officials from the County actively prevented a thorough investigation of [the] death and affirmatively misled and deterred Plaintiffs from timely claim presentation by lying about the circumstances around Bernard’s death during the investigation; preventing Homicide from conducting a proper investigation pursuant to Sheriff’s policies; ordering deputies not to take witness statements; failing to disclose critical facts to the Medical Examiner’s office regarding [the] death, resulting in an incomplete report by the ME’s office; and failing to disclose any facts to [his] family regarding his death.”

According to the district court, the complaint alleged “sufficient facts to infer that the [defendants] knew that Victorianne had consumed methamphetamine and by disregarding the risk, delayed, denied, or obstructed [his] access to medical care and thus caused his death.” Further, it contained “sufficient facts to infer that each of the [defendants] had time to deliberate before acting or failing to act in a deliberately indifferent manner.”

In 2014, a civilian review board determined that two sheriff’s deputies had violated jail policies in connection with Victorianne’s death. “The symptoms and effects of the decedent’s drug overdose or toxicity were clearly evident, but went largely untreated by medical staff,” the board found. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.30].

Following Victorianne’s death, jail officials said they had improved medical care for prisoners, installed a body scanner and taken other precautions. “Mr. Victor­ianne’s death underscores the difficulty law enforcement has in trying to protect inmates and arrestees from causing harm to themselves,” stated Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jan Caldwell, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

After the defendants’ motions to dismiss were denied, the parties entered into negotiations and agreed to a $2.3 million settlement that was approved by the county’s Board of Supervisors the same day. See: Victorianne v. County of San Diego, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:14-cv-02170-WQH-BLM. 


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Related legal case

Victorianne v. County of San Diego