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Private Medical Contractor Wellpath Pays $4.5 Million in Death of Mentally Ill Jail Detainee After Judge Finds It Destroyed Evidence

The family’s attorney, Edwin Budge, said that Marc Moreno “literally died of thirst,” in the jail’s infirmary.

At the time, the infirmary was run by Correct Care Solutions (CCS), the corporate predecessor of Wellpath, both Tennessee-based firms. One of the country’s largest private healthcare providers to prisons and jails, Wellpath reported 2017 revenues of $1.3 billion.

Making the tragedy of the 18-year-old’s death even worse, he wasn’t supposed to be at the jail at all. His family had called the county’s Crisis Response Unit (“CRU”) on March 3, 2016, when Moreno was experiencing a mental health crisis. He had long suffered from “mental illness characterized as bipolar or schizophrenic,” according to Budge.

At CRU, a counselor observed him talking to angels and hitting himself in the face, unable to understand basic questions. The counselor called the Kennewick Police Department to transport Moreno to the hospital. Instead, arriving officers arrested Moreno on outstanding misdemeanor warrants and transported him to the county jail.

“It was certainly traumatic for the family to see their loved one, who they’d taken to the mental health clinic for treatment, instead get put into jail,” Budge observed.

There Moreno was confined in an isolation cell with “no bed, toilet, sink, or access to drinking water” the lawsuit stated— nothing but four padded walls, a floor, and an overhead light burning 24 hours a day.

From March 3 until March 10, 2016, jail social worker Anita Vallee — who was not employed by CCS — observed Moreno through the window of his cell door, describing him each day in a similar way: naked, rolling on the floor, playing with his feces, talking to walls but unresponsive to her questions.

She made no attempt to provide him medical attention. But on March 8, 2016, when she realized Moreno had not had anything to eat or drink for two days, Vallee submitted a “routine” referral to CCS, the jail’s contracted medical staff.

CCS’s nurse at the jail, Ashley Castaneda, responded to the referral on March 10, 2016, the date she claimed to receive it — a full week after Moreno was booked into the jail. She also observed him through the window of his cell door, noting that he was lying naked on the floor, face down and singing. Though the referral indicated that he’d not had food or drink in four days at that point, Castaneda — like Vallee before her — did not help or summon emergency medical personnel. She didn’t even take his vital signs.

The next day, guards discovered Moreno was dead, his naked body lying face down, covered with feces. He had lost 38 pounds in the eight days since he was booked into the jail.

“I felt like many places failed him,” said his older sister, Jessica Moreno. “The hospital failed him. Crisis response failed him. The jail failed him.”

Shady corporate shenanigans also nearly kept his family from getting compensated for his wrongful death. Wellpath only agreed to the settlement after U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson of the Eastern District of Washington imposed a default judgment against the firm in June 2020, having found its predecessor CCS guilty of destroying crucial evidence in the case: thousands of potentially incriminating emails that Budge requested during discovery, including all the emails of another CCS nurse fired from the jail after Moreno’s death, as well as the emails of that nurse’s supervisor.

A report published February 3, 2021, by the Colorado Springs Indy found that Wellpath and CCS have been sued a total of 1,395 times since 2003. A 2019 report by CNN noted that the lawsuits alleged the firm had a role in 70 deaths. It no longer holds the contract for healthcare at the Benton County Jail.

Though not related to Moreno’s case, the Kennewick Police Department has since won a grant to hire “mental health professionals who now ride along with our officers,” according to spokesman Lt. Aaron Clem, offering expertise “when we encounter people in crisis.”

Along with a $1.2 million settlement previously paid by Benton County, the payment from Wellpath brings the total to $5.7 million that Miguel and Alecia Moreno have received for the loss of their son, in addition to an undisclosed settlement with another defendant in their suit, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, which they claimed discharged the young Moreno —before he went to CRU — after only a few days of care and after denying him treatment at its counseling center. See: Estate of Marc A. Moreno v. Correctional Healthcare Companies, Case No. 4:18-cv-05171-RMP, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wash.). 


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Related legal case

Estate of Marc A. Moreno v. Correctional Healthcare Companies