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$41,850 Settlement in Heart Attack Death at California Jail

The surviving family of Kevin Lee McLaughlin, who died of a heart attack in California’s San Luis Obispo County Jail (SLOCJ) in April 2017, attempted to withdraw from a $41,850 settlement negotiated in its wrongful death lawsuit, which claimed deliberate indifference to McLaughlin’s emergency medical needs resulting in his death. But a judge has prevented them from seeking a larger amount.

McLaughlin was arrested on January 23, 2017, for felony assault with a deadly weapon after he pushed a chair at his elderly mother. With a history of arrests at SLOCJ, the 60-year-old was listed as a high-risk detainee due to his high blood pressure, advanced heart disease, history of alcohol abuse, and reliance on psychotropic medication for anxiety and depression.

On January 26, 2017, SLOCJ Dr. Kristopher Howalt prescribed McLaughlin a 1,200 mg daily dose of Ibuprofen, increasing that to 1,600 mg daily on February 14, 2017. At the time of his death nearly two months later, McLaughlin was still on Ibuprofen despite a 2005 warning from the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the drug elevates heart attack risk and a 2015 FDA warning that it should be avoided altogether by people with high blood pressure like McLaughlin.

McLaughlin went to jail medical staff complaining of shoulder pain early April 13, 2017. The report from the visit stated that he told the nurse, “I’m clammy — I need to go to the hospital.” It also stated he said “he may have slept on his arm wrong and felt better when he took deep breaths.” A nurse gave him some aspirin and sent him back to his dorm where, an hour later, a guard noticed his irregular breathing. The guard left and came back with a nurse only to find McLaughlin unresponsive.

After the nurse unsuccessfully attempted CPR with a defibrillator, McLaughlin was pronounced dead at 3:54 am. Due to disciplinary action taken against San Luis Obispo County’s medical examiner, the autopsy was performed by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office. It was the eleventh such death at SLOCJ in a four-year period beginning in 2014. Two of those were drug overdoses, and one was a suicide. The eight remaining deaths resulted from other medical conditions.

In 2018, McLaughlin’s family filed a wrongful death claim against SLOCJ, alleging that McLaughlin suffered “classic heart attack symptoms” which were intentionally ignored. It further alleged mental torture, abuse of power, negligent hiring, supervision and training, inadequate staffing, dissemination of false information, conspiracy and fraudulent record keeping. The family asked for unspecified damages for loss of support, emotional distress and funeral expenses.

A civil county grand jury investigation did not find SLOCJ in violation of the state’s Title 15 inmate welfare requirements, but it did fault the jail for a lack of oversight. It also recommended a top-down review of Sheriff’s Office policies in the county jail. Ian Parkinson, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff, said it was the state’s laws that overburdened the jail with detainees who have serious medical or mental issues.

McLaughlin’s family initially agreed to the $41,850 settlement, but decided to withdraw the offer. In announcing that decision on October 22, 2019, family attorney James McKiernan said Dorothy McLaughlin, Kevin McLaughlin’s 85-year-old mother, would “continue on with this grueling court process to see that justice is served for her dead son and others in the county jail whose serious medical complaints are disregarded by jail medical personnel.”

Attorney for the County, Nina Negranti, said the negotiation was already signed and approved by the County Board of Supervisors and so the county intended to ask the court to enforce the agreement. On February 6, 2020 County Judge Ginger Garret granted the county’s motion with a ruling that found no provision in the agreement for withdrawal by either party after it had signed. See: McLaughlin v. County of San Luis Obispo, U.S.D.C. (CD CA), Case No. 18 CV-0275. 

Related legal case

McLaughlin v. County of San Luis Obispo