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$1.25 Million Settlement for California Jail Prisoner’s Loss of Limbs

by David M. Reutter

As PLN previously reported, a man arrested and taken to jail in California’s San Bernardino County in March 2018 ended up in a hospital eight days later in critical condition, suffering severe dehydration, sepsis, and renal failure. Perry Belden then went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated, but he ultimately required amputation of both legs below his knees and his left hand, as well as suffering deformity and scarring in his right hand. [See: PLN, Dec. 2020, p.48.]

On May 28, 2021, San Bernardino County agreed to pay Belden $1.25 million to settle his claims. The County made no admission of liability with the settlement agreement, but the $1.25 million payout speaks volumes about the provision of medical care at its jails.

“You don’t get that sick and dehydrated without showing deathly ill signs for at least two to three days before that,” said Sharon Brunner, one of Belden’s attorneys.

His saga began with an arrest on March 27, 2018, for an alleged assault on his step-father, to which deputies added a charge of vandalism when he fell through the ceiling under the attic where they found him hiding. They then took him to Hi-Desert Medical Center, where he was cleared for booking into the County’s Morongo Basin Station. The attending physician noted his injuries from the fall and ordered vital-sign monitoring along with antiseizure medication.

Two days later, Belden informed officials that he was seriously sick – and that it wasn’t due to withdrawal from heroin he admitted using. But according to the federal civil rights complaint he later filed, jailers shrugged off his complaint, saying: “That’s what happens when you’re a crack head.”

For the next seven days, video captured Belsen mostly unconscious in his cell. When he was conscious, medical staff ignored his pleas for help. Medical records showed he was not given any antiseizure medication, nor were his vitals checked.

Believing in part that he would quickly be transferred to state prison and receive adequate medical care, Belden accepted a plea deal on April 2, 2018. A short sentence was eventually reduced to probation. But not before he was transferred to the County’s West Valley Detention Center on April 3, 2018, and he finally got anti-seizure drugs. The next day, April 4, 2018, Belden was rushed to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where he underwent the amputations and remained for six months.

With the aid of Brunner and fellow Victorville attorney James S. Terrell, along with attorneys from the Morris Law Firm APC in San Diego, Belden filed suit in federal court for the Central District of California in May 2019, accusing Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of violating his civil rights. By November 10, 2020, his surviving claims included inadequate medical care, a failure to summon medical care, as well as inadequate medical policies and training. That day, the first two largely survived, but not the last. See: Belden v. Cty. of San Bernardino, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 250413 (C.D. Cal.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included costs and fees for Belden’s attorneys. See: Belden v. Cty. of San Bernardino, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00900.

The treatment of addicts during what the federal Department of Justice has proclaimed “a nationwide opioid epidemic” often has two serious consequences: (1) entanglement with the criminal justice system and (2) untreated withdrawal symptoms, which can cause permanent physical injury or death during any of those interactions; Belden, for example, appeared in court and entered his plea just two days before he was rushed to a hospital for major surgery, yet no one there apparently noticed how sick he was, either.

“His entire life has changed,” said Brunner of her client. “It’s one of the saddest cases Jim (Terrell) and I have ever dealt with.”  

Additional source: Palm Springs Desert Sun

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