MONCKS CORNER — Two lawsuits involving deaths at the Berkeley County jail could impact how much time and money detention centers across the state must devote to sick inmates.
The Berkeley County jail has been sued twice in the past seven months after inmates died there.
In both cases, the plaintiffs claim that inmates with serious pre-existing medical conditions died because they didn’t get proper medical care.
If the complaints go to trial, jurors also will be asked to discern how jail workers are supposed to differentiate between genuinely sick prisoners and those who just want a change of scenery.
Hill-Finklea Detention Center Supervisor Cliff McElvogue referred a request for comment to Sheriff Wayne DeWitt.
“I have a duty to take in all persons charged with crimes, regardless of how sick they may be,” DeWitt said in an email.
The county attorney’s office asked its Insurance Reserve Fund to handle the complaints, which assigned them to Charleston attorney Sandra Senn. Senn declined to comment on the lawsuits but noted the challenges of handling sick inmates.
“As Berkeley County grows so does its inmate population, which is notoriously an unhealthy population,” she said. “Making medical judgment calls as to the true needs of the inmates and funding those needs is a systemic problem which is far from unique to Berkeley. Sheriffs and jailers are not doctors, so they must rely upon the medical experts hired by the government to care for those who are incarcerated. And, sheriffs are mandated by law to take in all inmates accused of crimes, regardless of the status of their health.”
The latest complaint was filed Sept. 20 in the 9th Circuit Court of Common Pleas. It’s a wrongful death suit on behalf of the estate of David Allan Woods, who died Nov. 11, 2010, at age 50 while an inmate in the jail.
Woods was convicted Sept. 2, 2010, of shoplifting and animal nuisance. He was ordered to pay fines of about $2,500 or spend 60 days in jail. He didn’t pay the fines and was arrested Oct. 12 to serve his jail time.
Woods had a history of bipolar depressive disorder, Hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver, esophageal varices (dilated veins) and gastrointestinal bleeds, according to the complaint. He was on Ondansetron for nausea and vomiting, Zolpidem for sleep, Nexium for reducing stomach acid, Atenolol for high blood pressure, and Seroquel and Prozac for depression.
The nurse who evaluated Woods at the jail reviewed Woods’ medical history and noted only that he was taking Prozac for depression and Atenolol for high blood pressure, according to the complaint.
Woods started complaining about his problems shortly after he arrived at the jail. His condition steadily deteriorated, including vomiting blood and showing blood in his stool. The complaint alleges that the staff ignored his worsening condition and obvious symptoms of distress. Woods called his own doctor twice to complain, and a supervisor told the doctor that Woods was “fine and is just trying to get out,” according to the complaint.
Woods was finally taken to the hospital after becoming unresponsive. He died three days later from upper gastrointestinal bleeding from a tear in his esophageal varices, according to the complaint.
“As a direct and proximate result of the gross negligence, recklessness, and departure from the standards of reasonable care by Defendants, David Woods’ esophageal varices and gastrointestinal bleeding went untreated, resulting in his death,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint is asking a jury to award at least $100,000 in actual, future and punitive damages.
As defendants, the suit names the clinic that provides medical services to inmates and trains staff to handle medical emergencies, the clinic’s owner and on-call physician, a clinic nurse, the sheriff and a number of jail officers.
The Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill is representing the plaintiffs.
The previous complaint was filed April 27 on behalf of the estate of Michael A. Wilson.
Wilson, 47, reported to jail March 2, 2010, for an alleged probation violation. A nurse evaluated Woods for alcohol withdrawal and prescribed Oxazepam for detoxification.
The complaint alleges that the dosage was not sufficient to manage Wilson’s alcohol withdrawal and Wilson’s vital signs were not properly monitored.
The night of March 6, Wilson began experiencing seizures from the alcohol withdrawal, and the staff called EMS. The complaint alleges that the staff smothered Wilson as they tried to control him and that EMS should have recognized he was in serious trouble.
Wilson never recovered and was removed from life support March 14, 2010.
The complaint is asking a jury to award actual, consequential and punitive damages but does not name an amount sought.
Defendants include the clinic, the doctor, the nurse, the sheriff, members of the jail staff and Berkeley County EMS.
The Bell Legal Group of Georgetown is representing the plaintiffs.
It’s not unusual for a jail to be sued after an inmate dies there.
Since 1995, the Charleston County jail has been sued at least twice after an inmate died, and the Dorchester County jail has been sued once, according to a search of court records and The Post and Courier’s files.
Leon Jones died after a diabetic episode in the Charleston County jail in March 2002. The family sued. The case was settled without a trial, with the jail’s health services provider paying $522,000 and the county paying $12,000.
Leon Walters died after struggling with officers at the Charleston County Jail in 1999. The family sued. A jury found that the deputies were not at fault, and an appeals court upheld the verdict.
The family of Marietta Dacus sued the Dorchester County jail after she hanged herself in a cell in 1993. The family claimed the staff should have prevented it. A jury decided in favor of the county.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.
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