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$1.6 Million Awarded to California Family After Man Dies in County Jail

by Chad Marks

On February 15, 2019, a federal jury ruled that Mark Pajas, Sr. should not have died at a jail in Monterey County, California, prompting an award of $1.6 million to his family in a wrongful death suit.

Pajas, 56, was riding a bicycle the wrong way down a street on January 19, 2015 when King City Police Officer Steve Orozco tried to pull him over, then rammed into him. Pajas was arrested for “recklessly driving,” transporting a controlled substance for sale and resisting arrest. After being taken to a hospital he was booked into the Monterey County jail, where staff did not adequately monitor him as he detoxed from heroin. Less than 24 hours later he was found dead, facedown in his own vomit.

Pajas’ family was told that he died from an overdose. That turned out to be false. He actually died from a cardiac event involving arrhythmia, possibly exacerbated by opiate withdrawal and substance abuse, according to the medical examiner.

The jury reviewed evidence indicating that guards at the jail did not conduct any safety checks for almost half an hour before Pajas was found dead in his detox cell. They were supposed to conduct checks every 15 minutes. The jury held jail officials had violated Pajas’ rights by failing to provide necessary medical treatment.

Monterey County jail officials had been sued over inadequate medical and mental health care in other cases. In a 2018 settlement, for example, the county paid $2.85 million to the family of Sandra Vela, who committed suicide following negligence by jail staff.

Yvette Pajas, the 42-year-old daughter of Mark Pajas, said the jury award gave her family justice. Monterey County officials must make changes so no more prisoners die unnecessarily, she added.

“When it gets reported that somebody died in jail who was addicted to drugs, there may be this idea that this is someone who’s just a throwaway,” said attorney Lori Rifkin, who represented Pajas’ family. “I think that this trial really exposed that that’s not true. That’s not how people deserve to be treated.”

Following the verdict, the plaintiffs – Pajas’ wife and four adult children – waived their motion for costs in exchange for the defendants waiving their right to appeal. See: Villarreal v. Monterey County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:16-cv-00945-BLF. 

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Additional sources: thecalifornian.com, mercurynews.com

Related legal case

Villarreal v. Monterey County