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Ninth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit in Prisoner Overdose at San Diego Jail

Ronnie Sandoval secretly swallowed a large amount of methamphetamine just before being arrested for possessing a small gram of the drug. Soon after he arrived at the San Diego Central Jail, a deputy noticed he was sweating, disoriented, and lethargic. Sandoval said he might be diabetic to explain away the symptoms. A nurse tested Sandoval’s blood sugar level, which was normal.

An hour later, the deputy noticed Sandoval still had the symptoms and took him to the jail medical station. The deputy took him to see nurse Romeo de Guzman to have him thoroughly checked out. The nurse had Sandoval placed in a medical observation cell (MOC) that was also used as holding cell by security. Because of its dual use, no nurse was assigned to routinely check on the prisoners in the MOC.

De Guzman performed a quick blood sugar test in the MOC and left. He claims he released Sandoval for booking, but a deputy’s contemporaneous report said he asked for Sandoval to be placed in a “sobering tank,” Sandoval stayed in the MOC and went unobserved for about eight hours. He was seizing when next seen.

Nurses Dana Harris and Maria Llamado were summoned, along with several deputies. Although told to call paramedics by a deputy who was trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT), by Llamado, and later her own supervisor, Harris refused to do so. Eventually, she called for EMTs but they could not transport a person in seizure, that required paramedics. Finally, paramedics arrived 47 minutes after Sandoval was seen unresponsive and having seizures. While being lifted, his heart stopped and he died within minutes.

In a federal civil rights action against San Diego County and the three nurses as defendants, Sandoval’s family alleged he was denied treatment for serious medical needs caused by deliberate indifference and the county’s policy of using the MOC for dual purposes without adequate communication about the reasons a prisoner was in the cell. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs replied and defendants filed boilerplate, one word objections for “relevance,” “hearsay,” and “foundation” to key documentary evidence supporting the reply. The court sustained the objections and granted defendants summary judgment. Plaintiffs appealed.

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Related legal case

Sandoval v. County of San Diego