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First Wrongful Death Claim Against San Quentin Prison Filed Over COVID-19 Death

by Dale Chappell

The family of one of the prisoners who died of COVID-19 at San Quentin prison in California has filed the first wrongful death claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the prison. Papers filed by the family’s lawyers on September 10, 2020, detailed how prison officials ignored the risks of the coronavirus and transferred 121 prisoners to San Quentin from a known COVID-19 hotspot without testing them — and then housed those prisoners in an open dorm with San Quentin prisoners without any precautions.

In short order, more than 2,237 prisoners became infected and 26 died (one guard also died). The transferred prisoners came from the California Institution for Men in Chino, where more than 600 cases of COVID-19 were reported with at least nine deaths.

Known for being the home of California’s death row, San Quentin also houses large numbers of low-level, non-violent prisoners, with many being older and at-risk for COVID-19. One of those prisoners was Daniel Ruiz who, at age 61, had at least four identified medical problems that put him at risk for death of COVID-19, according to the papers filed. He was one of 40,000 prisoners identified across the state as being at-risk for COVID-19 complications.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the release of thousands of at-risk prisoners, Ruiz was one of those selected. He had just weeks to go before his release when he was exposed to COVID-19 at San Quentin. When he fell gravely ill and was transferred to the hospital, prison officials refused to let hospital staff notify his family, the papers said. Ruiz’s family had no idea he was sick or even in the hospital. Within days, he was on a ventilator and near death. Only then was his family notified. He died on July 11.

The Demand Letter filed with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) to preserve evidence for a lawsuit planned by attorneys for Ruiz’s survivors identified the missteps by prison staff in response to the deadly virus. On May 30, 2020, San Quentin had no reported cases of COVID-19. But on the same day the Chino prisoners were transferred in. Within three weeks, San Quentin went from zero cases to almost 500.

A federal court ordered a person to medically monitor the prison’s handling of the virus, and on June 13, 2020, a group of health experts toured the prison. They wrote an “urgent memo” on June 15 warning that COVID-19 at San Quentin could develop into a “full-blown local epidemic and health care crisis in the prison and surrounding counties.” They found prison staff were ignoring safety measures, like wearing masks, and not testing for COVID-19.

The experts also reported that use of disciplinary segregation to house COVID-19 prisoners “may thwart efforts for outbreak containment as people may be reluctant to report their symptoms.” Nevertheless, San Quentin moved COVID-19 prisoners to disciplinary segregation, including solitary confinement. Prisoners then began refusing testing to avoid being punished for having the virus.

But it was the transfer of the Chino prisoners to San Quentin that was the focus of the claim. The letter cited a California Senate Committee on Public Safety meeting on July 1, 2020, where state senators called the transfer “the worst prison health screw up in state history.” Newsom himself admitted the Chino prisoners “should not have been transferred.”

Attorneys for the family claimed that CDCR “knew or should have known that Daniel Ruiz had multiple high-risk factors for COVID-19,” and that he was “due to be released within a matter of weeks.” They claimed that “due to [CDCR’s] wrongful decisions, acts, and omissions described [in the letter], Daniel Ruiz contracted COVID-19 while in [CDCR’s] custody and care.” They further claimed “deliberate indifference” by CDCR to Ruiz’s “serious medical needs.”

They claimed damages for wrongful death, pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship and economic support, and punitive and statutory damages, among others.

The family is represented by Michael J. Haddad of Haddad and Sherwin out of Oakland, California. See: Claim of Daniel Ruiz, Deceased, et al., pursuant to Gov. Code § 910 et seq., and Demand for Preservation of Evidence. 


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