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$825,000 Paid to Estate of New Mexico Jail Detainee Who Died from Heroin Withdrawal

by Matt Clarke

In a settlement reached on March 1, 2022, Santa Fe County, New Mexico, agreed to pay $825,000 to resolve claims filed over the heroin withdrawal death of a detainee at the county’s Adult Detention Facility (ADF) six years earlier.

When Ricardo Jose Ortiz was booked into ADF in January 2016, jail nurse Anne Robinson determined he was dependent on heroin and likely would suffer withdrawal. Though she allegedly failed to complete several intake forms, she did order a “kick kit” of withdrawal medications; however, Ortiz allegedly never received it.

Three days later, Ortiz was discovered naked and unresponsive in his cell, which was partially covered in feces and bodily fluids. He soon died, and an autopsy determined that the cause was “acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage due to probable heroin withdrawal.”

The events of the three days between his arrival at the jail and his death led his family to file a lawsuit in New Mexico’s First Judicial District Court for the County of Santa Fe, lodging a state tort claim and another claim under 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 that Robinson was deliberately indifferent to Ortiz’s serious medical needs.

Defendant removed the lawsuit to federal court for the District of New Mexico, where Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint adding claims against five jailers, as co-defendants with Robinson, as well as a claim against the Santa Fe County Board of Supervisors.

Defendants then moved to dismiss the complaint, while Plaintiffs filed a motion to amend it a second time to add a claim of municipal liability for the county for its allegedly deficient medical intake protocol, as provided under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). That was denied after claims were dismissed against the nurse and the guards under the doctrine of qualified immunity, and the district court said there could be no municipal liability with no municipal employee left to hold individually liable, too. It thus dismissed the case on February 5, 2019.

Aided by their Albuquerque attorneys, Alicia C. Lopez and Carolyn M. “Cammie” Nichols of Rothstein Donatelli LLP, Plaintiffs appealed. In a decision on August 28, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the complaint against Nurse Robinson because it failed to allege she was supposed to ensure Ortiz got the “kick kit” he was never delivered.

Likewise, the Court upheld the dismissal of complaints against four of the five jailers, who had allegedly seen Ortiz vomiting or looking severely ill, because Plaintiffs failed to allege any of the four saw specific symptoms that should have led them to conclude Ortiz faced a “substantial” risk. Merely observing the prisoner’s vomit, the Court said, did not indicate knowledge of such a risk.

But bloody vomit? That’s a different story, the Court continued.

“The presence of blood in vomit makes the presence of a serious medical need more plausible and more obvious,” the Court determined, and since the complaint alleged that Ortiz said he was vomiting blood to guard Dylan Chavez, “a jury could conclude the seriousness of the medical risks associated with vomiting blood would be obvious” to him, just as they would be “to any reasonable person.” So the claim was reinstated against the guard.

Because the district court had refused to allow the complaint to be amended a second time for lack of a surviving claim against a person, reinstating the case against Chavez was enough to reverse that decision. But the Court also noted that the district court’s reasoning was flawed; the Tenth Circuit has allowed Monell municipal liability without individual liability ever since its decision in Garcia v. Salt Lake Cty., 768 F.2d 303 (10th Cir. 1985).

Having determined allegations were plausibly made that one jailer violated the prisoner’s right to medical care, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all defendants except Chavez, vacating the dismissal with respect to him and also vacating the district court’s denial of leave to amend the complaint. See: Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 973 F.3d 1022 (10th Cir. 2020).

The case then headed back to the district court, which denied Defendants’ motion to reconsider and vacate the remand of state-law claims to state court on December 18, 2021. See: Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 165765 (D. N.M.).

Meanwhile the parties were working on their settlement agreement, with the district court appointing a guardian ad litem to consider its fairness to Ortiz’s minor children on November 23, 2021. After the agreement was complete, a final fairness hearing was held on May 12, 2022, after which the district court approved the parties’ joint motion to adopt the settlement.

In it, the family agreed to accept $825,000 to release all claims, including costs, attorney’s fees and fees of the guardian ad litem. See: Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, USDC (D. N.M.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00043. 

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Related legal cases

Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs

Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs

Quintana v. Santa Fe Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs