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$82 Million For Detainee Death in Oklahoma Jail is “Largest Civil Rights Death Claim in U.S. History”

by Matt Clarke

On February 24, 2023, an Oklahoma federal jury awarded $14 million in compensatory damages and $68 million in punitive damages to the estate of a woman who died of a heart attack in the Tulsa County Jail, despite repeatedly requesting medical care to no avail.

Gwendolyn Young, 52, had serious medical and mental health conditions requiring prescribed medication plus regular monitoring and evaluation when she was booked into the jail on October 16, 2012. She suffered from diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, and she had a prior history of cardiovascular disease and strokes. Correctional Healthcare Companies (CHC) - now Wellpath - was under contract to provide healthcare to the jail’s detainees.

According to the complaint later filed on her behalf, Young repeatedly told jailers and CHC staff that she was experiencing nausea and vomiting, along with pain in her abdomen and lower back. But her complaints were ignored. Two hours before she died in a segregation cell, Young told jail staff she was vomiting blood. A jailer looked at the vomit and told her there was “not enough blood” – in fact he said it looked like Kool-Aid. Mere minutes before she expired, Young told a nurse she was having difficulty breathing and asked to be taken to a hospital. The nurse denied the request and told Young to take her medication. Young then suffered a heart attack and died in the jail on February 8, 2013.

The jail had a history of substandard health care. It failed audits by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) in 2007 and 2010. A 2009 investigation by the state Department of Health uncovered at least five serious violations of state jail standards related to healthcare. But the jail failed to address those deficiencies or deficiencies reported by its own director of nursing. Instead, CHC’s Vice President of Accreditation allegedly orchestrated falsification of documents in an unsuccessful attempt to defraud NCCHC auditors.

With the assistance of Tulsa attorney Dan Smolen, Deborah Young filed suit as administrator of Young’s estate in federal court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in 2013. The Court then denied a motion to dismiss on October 6, 2020, by defendants CHC and Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, who by then had replaced Stanley Glanz, the sheriff in office when Young died. See: Young v. Glanz, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184675 (N.D. Okla.).

The county settled its part of the suit in 2021 for $3.6 million. But CHC opted for a jury trial. When the verdict was returned, the jury awarded the estate $82 million, which its attorney called “the largest standing civil rights death claim verdict in U.S. history. “

“I think the jury really realized that the private medical provider was incentivized to not send people to the hospital, and that’s really why they were not doing it,” said Smolen, who noted that Young had predicted her own death two months before she died, when talking to jail staff about CHC’s culture of indifference.

“I think the jury really understood that deterrence is a large part of the damage component in a civil rights case,” Smolen added. “They saw the evidence. They were receptive to essentially send the message of deterrence and that if you can have an industry that provides for-profit medical care in a jail setting, then that industry has to be put in check. And if the Legislature isn’t going to do it and they are not going to do it themselves, then a jury has to be the one to do it, and I really think they understood that and took it serious.”

The jail recorded 28 deaths from 2005 until 2015.

“I’m really happy for the family. They really stuck with it over the decade lifespan of the lawsuit,” the attorney concluded. “The family was just highly offended by the evidence, and they had a real desire to memorialize what happened to their mom and to other people in the county jail under this private medical provider.” See: Young v. Corr. Healthcare Cos., U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:13-cv-00315.

Additional source: Tulsa World