“The jury sent a strong message that Naphcare’s conduct was completely unacceptable,” said attorney Edwin Budge of the Seattle law firm of Budge & Heipt, PLLC.
He was responding to a federal jury’s July 2022 award of nearly $27 million to his client, the daughter of Cindy Lou Hill, a 55-year-old mother, sister and aunt, who died at Washington’s Spokane County Jail in 2018 after being denied medical care for a ruptured intestine that led to a fatal infection.
Hill had been booked into the jail for heroin possession on August 21, 2018. Over the next four days she experienced withdrawal symptoms. She complained about extreme abdominal pain the morning of August 25, 2018. Hanna Gubitz, a registered nurse employed by Naphcare, the Alabama-based company contracted to provide jail medical care, found Hill in a fetal position and screaming on the floor of her cell.
Unable to stand or walk to the door, Hill had to be dragged across the floor on a blanket by another prisoner in order to see Gubitz. After an initial examination, Hill was moved to a medical watch cell. But she received no treatment. She reportedly refused another examination later that day, according to Gubitz. Later that evening, Hill was found dead in a pool of blood and vomit.
On behalf of her estate, her daughter filed suit in 2020 against Spokane County, Naphcare and Gubitz. “All pretrial detainees, no matter their station in life, are entitled to constitutionally adequate medical care when confined behind bars,” the complaint declared, noting Hill’s condition was “treatable” and her death “preventable.”
No doctor was notified about Hill’s condition, nor was she taken to a hospital, the complaint noted. Moreover, prisoners placed in medical watch cells at the jail were not monitored by medical staff but merely watched over by guards with no medical training, conducting checks every 30 minutes as they did in other cell blocks.
Naphcare was accused of having “constitutionally deficient policies, practices or customs that subjected jail inmates and detainees like Ms. Hill to a substantial risk of serious harm.” Additionally, the complaint stated that “[a]ccording to former jail nurses, the company had a custom of putting profits over the medical wellbeing of inmates.”
The case proceeded to discovery, during which Plaintiffs learned that the county had failed to preserve almost seven hours of surveillance video showing the medical watch cell where Hill was held. Moreover, there were gaps in whatever video was produced, including times when cell checks were conducted and when Gubitz had recorded Hill’s alleged refusal of an examination. While jail staff could have preserved the video, and usually did so after significant events such as prisoner deaths, they allowed it to be recorded over.
On May 9, 2022, the district court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment against Spokane County as a sanction for spoliation of evidence. The Court found the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(e) had been met, and an adverse jury instruction against Spokane County was insufficient because it could prejudice the other defendants who were not responsible for the missing video. Specifically, the district court held that the county’s failure to preserve the video was intentional and done to “avoid its litigation obligations.” Considering the egregious nature of the spoliation, the court weighed the relevant factors and determined that granting default judgment against the county as to liability was the only appropriate sanction. See: Estate of Hill v. Naphcare, Inc., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83714 (E.D. Wash.).
The case went to trial before a jury to determine the county’s damages, as well as determining liability for the remaining defendants. On July 19, 2022, the jury awarded $2 million for physical, mental and emotional pain and suffering prior to Hill’s death, plus $750,000 for her loss of enjoyment of life. For those damages, 10% liability was assessed against the county and 90% against Naphcare. Finally, the jury ordered Naphcare to pay a staggering $24 million in punitive damages. Budge, the estate’s attorney, had asked jurors to return a verdict against the company that would “sting.” They apparently listened to him. See: Est. of Hill v. Naphcare, Inc., USDC (E.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00410.
Additional source: Spokane Spokesman-Review
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