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With $2.95 Million Settlement, San Diego County Jail Racks Up Over $15 Million in Wrongful Death Payments

by Jacob Barrett

On October 6, 2021, San Diego County agreed to a $2,950,000 settlement in a wrongful death suit filed by the wife of Heron Moriarty, a mentally ill detainee at the county jail who suffocated himself there in 2016. Not only was he one of more than 200 people to die in custody over the past 15 years but the payout to his family pushed the total the county has shelled out to settle wrongful death claims at the jail above $15 million.

The county Board of Supervisors (BOS) approved the multimillion-dollar settlement for Moriarty’s death during a closed-door meeting, resolving a suit that had languished in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California for four years until testimony revealed jail officials threatened to retaliate against a jail employee who spoke out about the incident.

Moriarty, 43, suffered a psychotic break in 2016 and was hospitalized twice in the two weeks before his death, diagnosed with “psychosis, bipolar disorder and mania” and detained each time on a three-day involuntary hold under California Code 5150.

On May 25, 2016, after release from the second hold, he threw a table through a sliding-glass door at his brother’s home and drove off, crashing into parked cars a few miles away. There county Sheriff’s deputies found him in the street trying to get hit by passing vehicles.

They took him into custody and, when he began talking about getting them to kill him, they transported him to Central Jail where, under a pilot program then in effect, he could be placed in a “safety cell” without being seen by a psychiatrist. But no safety cell was available there, so he was taken to the Vista Detention Facility (VDF), which was not part of the pilot. He was not seen by a psychiatrist, though, because he told a jail nurse he was not suicidal. As a result, he was not placed in a safety cell there, either.

Over the next six days, his wife, Michelle Moriarty, phoned nearly 30 times, frantically begging jail officials to watch her husband because he was suicidal. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, the widow said she would sit on the phone for half an hour only to be told Moriarty was in good hands.

That turned out not to be the case.

On May 28, 2016, he was finally seen by a jail psychiatrist, who left him in an administrative segregation cell. On May 30, 2016, the doctor saw Moriarty again and recommended placing him on a Code 5150 hold the next day, but he did not discover Moriarty’s previous Code 5150 history.

The next morning Moriarty was seen by a nurse practitioner, Amanda Daniels, who recommended placing him in a safety cell. She was overruled by guard Sgt. Dale Weidenthaler. Twelve hours later, Moriarty wrapped a T-shirt around his neck and stuffed another shirt inside his mouth, suffocating himself to death.

When he died behind bars, he left behind his wife and three young children.

After his estate filed suit, the county got claims against six of its employees dismissed for failure to state a constitutional violation. See: Moriarty v. Cty. of San Diego, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46399 (S.D. Cal.).

Civil rights claims were also dismissed against Weidenthaler, who enjoyed qualified immunity (QI), so while his actions may have been negligent, the Court said, they were not deliberately indifferent to Moriarty’s serious medical needs. Employing a similar rationale, the Court dismissed civil rights claims against Daniels. But negligence claims against both defendants survived. See: Moriarty v. Cty. of San Diego, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 163527 (S.D. Cal.).

Chance Encounter Gives
Attorney New Evidence

That’s when Plaintiffs caught a break: Jeanette Werner, a records clerk at VDF, approached Moriarty family attorney Christopher Morris in 2020 about alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic in county jails, and the Moriarty case came up by happenstance. She then came forward to say that her pleas to Weidenthaler to place Moriarty on suicide watch went ignored. Werner also said the guard threatened retaliation if she spoke about the incident.

“During Mr. Moriarty’s detainment, Mr. Moriarty could be heard howling throughout the department for at least two days,” Werner said. “He sounded like a wounded animal crying for help.”

Text messages between Daniels and another guard replayed what happened next.

“Moriarty just killed himself,” the guard texted the nurse. “I heard you had recommended safety cell but we’re [sic] overruled.”

“Yes,” Daniels responded, “I asked but sergeant said no.”

“Yea, this one is gonna cost the county,” the guard texted, saying later in the exchange: “This was Nishimoto all over again”—apparently in reference to Jason Nishimoto, who committed suicide in the jail under similar circumstances, resulting in a wrongful death settlement of $595,000 in 2019.

The case returned to the Court, which did not find the new testimony sufficient to overwhelm Weidenthaler’s QI nor to lift Daniels’ actions to the level of deliberate indifference. But it was allowed to proceed to trial. See: Moriarty v. Cty. of San Diego, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175404 (S.D. Cal.).

That was enough to get the county to the settlement table, resulting in the largest payment approved by the BOS in a wrongful death case involving a jail suicide, according to one of the attorneys in the case. Morris, the Moriarty family’s attorney, said they were grateful that the county recognized the “historical problem” of people dying in the San Diego County jail system.

“We are even more grateful that the board has publicly announced its intention to dedicate the resources necessary to ensure that our jails live up to their obligation to safeguard those placed into the custody and care of the sheriff,” he said.

Apparently, the millions the county had paid out over the previous 15 years in similar cases was not enough to prompt that dedication of resources sooner. Just in 2021, the county had already paid another $3.5 million to the family of Paul Silva, who died after being booked into VDF, and still another $1 million to the family of 26-year-old Ivan Ortiz, who suffocated himself with a plastic bag in an unsupervised psychiatric security unit cell at Central Jail.

The settlement with Moriarty’s family covers Weidenthaler, but it does not cover Daniels, nor her employer, Correctional Facilities Management Group, which held the contract to provide healthcare at the county jails. The case remained active against both defendants at the beginning of March 2022. See: Moriarty v. Cty. of San Diego, USDC (S.D.Ca.), Case No. 3:17-cv-01154.

With this payment, the total shelled out by taxpayers to resolve wrongful-death lawsuits lodged against the Sheriff’s Department over the previous 15 years has topped $15 million. That total doesn’t include injury lawsuits. In 2021 the California Court of Appeals upheld a $6.2 million award to David Collins, who suffered a brain bleed after he fell twice inside VDF. Collins was booked into the jail on suspicion of being under the influence, though he was actually suffering from a near-lethal sodium deficiency and viral infection. He didn’t die, but he was left impaired with difficulty communicating. [See: PLN, July 2021, p.32.]

The Sheriff’s Department had no comment on the Moriarty settlement.  

Additional source: San Diego Union Tribune

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Related legal case

Moriarty v. Cty. of San Diego