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$7 Million Paid to California Detainee Left Quadriplegic Due to Jail Guards’ Alleged Negligence

by Matt Clarke

On February 11, 2022, California’s Santa Clara County paid $7 million to settle its part of a lawsuit brought by a former detainee who suffered a spinal injury in his cell at the county’s Elmwood Correctional Center, where responding guards and ambulance staff were allegedly so negligent that they caused him to become quadriplegic.

In 2019, Juan Martin Nuñez, then 28, was booked into the county’s main jail in San Jose. During intake, jail officials discovered that he was suffering from acute, severe mental illness, that he had a history of self-harm and involuntary psychiatric custody, and that he was taking a powerful anti-depressant.

Two weeks later, Nuñez complained that other detainees were threatening him. When guards ignored this warning, he stabbed himself between the eyes with a pencil. Jail officials responded by placing Nuñez in involuntary psychiatric custody, pursuant to California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5150. A psychiatrist prescribed him Benadryl and Zoloft.

Nonetheless, Nuñez became mentally distraught and, driven by his mental illness, ran headfirst into the metal door of his cell and fell, striking his head on the edge of the concrete slab bed. That severely injured his cervical spine, and he discovered that he could not move after the fall. He lay on the floor in pain, crying out for help.

Guards Tom Niccum, Haasan Obsiye, Jason Yao, and Nicholas Davis responded. Nuñez told them he might be paralyzed and in fact he was displaying all the signs of a cervical spinal injury. But instead of summoning an ambulance, Niccum told Yao and Davis to lift Nuñez and place him on the bunk, without stabilizing the prisoner’s neck, while the detainee screamed, sobbed, and begged for his mother.

Nuñez continued to experience excruciating pain and paralysis. When jail staff realized he had not moved for more than a day, they finally called an ambulance. Responding employees of WestMed Ambulance Service moved Nuñez from his bunk, again without first stabilizing his spine, and transported him to a hospital.

Later, aided by San Francisco attorneys Richard H. Schoenberger and Matthew D. Davis of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, Nuñez filed suit in state court, accusing jail and ambulance staff of exacerbating his spinal injuries and causing him permanent quadriplegia. The lawsuit accused Defendants of medical malpractice as well as deliberate indifference to Nuñez’s serious medical needs, in violation of his civil rights.

After he accepted $50,000 in an interim settlement hammered out in 2019, the parties proceeded to reach their final agreement, adding an additional payment of $6.95 million to resolve all of Nuñez’s claims against the county and its employees. See: Nuñez v. Cty. of Santa Clara, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Santa Clara), Case No. 21CV389600.

In a statement made when the settlement was announced, Davis said that although guards did not directly cause Nuñez’s injuries, they “failed to respond appropriately to his initial injuries and thereby made them worse.”

The case gained notoriety in late 2021 when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors began investigating jail operations. Board members Otto Lee and Joe Simitian, who led the investigation, said what happened to Nuñez was one of several instances of alleged neglect or misconduct at the jail resulting in large settlements paid to former detainees or their survivors.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Laurie Smith announced she would not seek re-election after her current term ends in December 2022. However, Smith still faces charges of corruption and interfering with criminal investigations of two top commanders. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.60.] 

Additional source: Mercury News

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Related legal case

Nuñez v. Cty. of Santa Clara