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$500,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Over Alcohol Withdrawal Death of Indiana Jail Prisoner

by Matt Clarke

In February 2019, LaPorte County, Indiana agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the estate of a jail prisoner who died of seizures caused by alcohol withdrawal. The suit alleged that the county jail, its private health care provider, the arresting officer and a hospital ignored the prisoner’s extreme intoxication level and the danger it posed to her life. 

Rachel Barnes, 33, was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after she drove her car into a farm pond. Deputy Sheriff Skyler M. Curtis took her to the LaPorte Hospital for a blood test for alcohol and drugs. Rather than waiting at the hospital for an hour to obtain the test results, he immediately transported Barnes to the LaPorte County Jail without having received medical clearance to move her. 

During the booking process around 11:00 p.m., Barnes told Deputy Sheriff Bruce Vermilyer that she suffered from seizures and was withdrawing from alcohol and methadone. She indicated she needed medical care and said, “Think I am going to die if I don’t go to hospital.”

Vermilyer told her she would not be taken to the hospital. He called Dr. Weldon Cooke, an employee of the jail’s private medical contractor, Advanced Correctional Healthcare (ACH). Without examining or talking to Barnes, Dr. Cooke prescribed three medications. She was given two of them and placed in a cell. 

At about 1:30 p.m. the next day, Deputy Curtis picked up the lab results from the hospital. They showed a life-threatening blood-alcohol level of 0.447. He added another charge against Barnes, but neither he nor the hospital informed jail staff of her extremely high level of intoxication. 

At the time of Barnes’ arrest, the jail’s policy was that any arrestee with a blood-alcohol level exceeding 0.24 was to be transported to an emergency room for medical clearance. Because jail personnel were unaware of her dangerous blood-alcohol level, this was not done. 

Surveillance video of Barnes’ cell showed her having a seizure about 6:53 p.m. – less than a day after she was arrested. Despite being on a drug-withdrawal observation protocol, her seizure went unnoticed by jail staff. She did not move after the seizure, and staff discovered her body 6½ hours later. An autopsy determined she died due to ethanol withdrawal. 

Aided by Indianapolis attorneys Karen Celestino-Horseman and Raymond L. Faust, Barnes’ estate filed suit against LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department officials, ACH, Dr. Cooke and the hospital, alleging they had violated Barnes’ rights and wrongfully caused her death. The county agreed to settle the case for $500,000.

LaPorte County attorney Shaw Friedman said jail staff did not know to monitor Barnes for alcohol withdrawal, which was a different protocol from drug-withdrawal monitoring, because the lab results from the hospital had not been sent to the facility. 

“She was a high-functioning alcoholic,” said Friedman. “She show[ed] no signs of her inebriated state at the time of her jail intake.” 

That sounds a lot like blaming the victim. Barnes had informed jail intake staff that she was withdrawing from alcohol and methadone, and felt she would die if not taken to a hospital. How much clearer could she have been? See: Barnes v. Boyd, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00190-RLM. 

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Additional source: wsbt.com

Related legal case

Barnes v. Boyd