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Colorado County Settles Lawsuit Over Jail Prisoner’s Death for $3.5 Million

by Matt Clarke

In November 2017, Summit County, Colorado reached a $3.5 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the family of a prisoner who died at the county’s jail.

Zachary Moffitt, 33, was being treated for acute alcohol poisoning in a hospital emergency room when he pulled out his IVs and left. A security guard called the sheriff’s office. When deputies discovered Moffitt just outside the hospital’s entrance, the guard told them what he was being treated for and that his blood alcohol content was .392 – a potentially fatal level that was over four times the legal limit for driving and enough to render a non-alcoholic unconscious.

A warrant check revealed an outstanding warrant for criminal mischief and a restraining order that prohibited Moffitt from consuming alcohol. Deputies arrested him.

Instead of first seeking treatment for Moffitt at the hospital, the deputies took him to the Summit County jail. There, his repeated requests for medical care and obvious symptoms of delirium tremens (DTs) were ignored for three days until he died.

Aided by Denver attorneys David A. Lane and Nicole B. Godfrey, Moffitt’s estate and two young children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against then-Summit County Sheriff John Minor and eight jail officials, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The complaint accused jail staff of simply watching Moffitt, who was mostly held in a cell near the booking area, as he slowly died due to alcohol withdrawal.

DTs occur in alcoholics who undergo untreated withdrawal. Symptoms can include nightmares, disorientation, fever, visual and auditory hallucinations, agitation, seizures, fear and self-harm. DTs are also associated with severe, uncontrolled shaking of the extremities, anxiety, panic attacks and paranoia. Moffitt displayed all of those symptoms during his three days at the jail.

According to court documents, the risk of death from untreated DTs is around 37 percent. However, they can be treated with benzodiazepines at a medical facility, reducing the mortality rate to five percent.

County officials opted to settle the wrongful death suit for $3.5 million. Current Sheriff Jamie Fitzsimmons said the jail has changed its policies to prevent future alcohol withdrawal deaths, including having healthcare staff on call 24/7 who evaluate prisoners’ medical needs when they are booked into the facility. See: Moffitt v. Minor, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00071-WYD-MEH. 

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Related legal case

Moffitt v. Minor