Joyce Curnell’s relatives are the latest of six families in the past six years to allege that missteps by the Charleston County jail’s medical provider contributed to their loves ones’ deaths.
Some of the half-dozen inmates never were thoroughly screened by a doctor when they were booked, allowing illnesses or injuries to spiral out of control, and some were never given medication that helped keep them alive, the families said in court documents.
In one case, a family alleged, a nurse thought a shaking man was feigning seizure symptoms. The inmate was later found dead in his cell, possibly of a fatal seizure.
The circumstances of Curnell’s death were brought to light earlier this week as her son filed court paperwork indicating his plans to sue the contractor, Carolina Center for Occupational Health. Late Thursday, the family also sued the county and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, saying that its officers failed to ensure that Curnell got the care she needed.
The 50-year-old was arrested July 21, 2015, at a West Ashley hospital, where she had been treated for a stomach sickness. She had unpaid fines in an old shoplifting case.
At the jail, her condition worsened during a night of vomiting. She didn’t get medication for the nausea or fluids to stave off dehydration. Her jailers had seen her grave state and warned nurses on duty, but she wasn’t treated, and she died of the illness July 22.
To an attorney for the family, Scott Evans of Georgetown, the pattern of deaths that have sparked lawsuits since 2009 paint a problematic history for the contractor.
“Oftentimes, these cases don’t get a lot of attention,” he said Friday. “I’m glad that this is bringing some awareness to something that needs a lot of attention.”
Despite the malpractice suits, the contractor has a number of professional accreditations, and it has never lost a case at trial, said Elizabeth Boineau, a spokeswoman.
“As is the nature of health care providers and it being a litigious environment, they certainly have been the subject of a variety of legal allegations,” she said. “But that’s not unlike other providers. ... This company is very responsible.”
A State Law Enforcement Division probe revealed that officers saw Curnell throwing up “nonstop” and told nurses that she needed medication and an exam. A Sheriff’s Office policy states that the officers “will be alert to inmates who are too ill to present themselves for sick call and will assist them in obtaining medical care.”
No employees at the Sheriff’s Office were disciplined as a result of Curnell’s death, Maj. Eric Watson said. The company is operated independently, he said.
“We don’t manage any medical personnel, nor do we make medical decisions of any kind,” he said. “We conduct annual reviews of all our policies, specifically, when an unusual event occurs. There are no noted violations mentioned concerning the actions of Sheriff’s Office detention officers.”
Some of the six deaths that prompted lawsuits have ended in settlements with the families. Others are unresolved.
One case centered on 23-year-old Jetta Todd, who was arrested Jan. 8, 2012, for shoplifting items for children in North Charleston.
She suffered a seizure during the jail booking process. It wasn’t the first time she had one. She also had kidney failure, depression and sickle cell disease. The medication that a nurse gave her helped little. Her seizures came and went for four hours. Her blood pressure shot up. There was no indication that anyone took her blood pressure or gave her pills for it.
Later, she was taken to a hospital, where she died.
A physician hired as an expert for the family said in court documents that Todd should have been evaluated by a doctor, not a nurse, at the jail; proper monitoring and treatment might have saved her.
Her family’s lawsuit was settled.
William Thomas, 44, was jailed in 2011 after falling behind on child support payments. He ran out of blood pressure medication at the jail, his family said. His blood pressure went up, and he suffered a stroke. He died later at a hospital.
The paramedics who had taken Thomas to the hospital noted that Thomas had run out of the pills four days earlier and asked for a refill. But he never got it.
His family’s suit is headed toward a trial next year.
The families of Thomas John Wernicke, 53, a heating and air-conditioning contractor jailed for trespassing, and George Benjamin Mullen, 26, who was locked up on an attempted murder charge, blamed the company’s nurses for not thoroughly examining them before their deaths.
Robert A. Lamble, one of the first to die under the contractor’s care, went to the jail on a drunken driving charge in 2009. The 60-year-old struggled with substance abuse and depression.
Behind bars, he started going through alcohol withdrawal. His body shook. But a nurse told him he was faking seizures, and he was locked in a cell “for the charge of pretending to be sick,” the lawsuit alleged. When the nurse saw him later with bruises and cuts, he was given medication for seizures. But 21 hours after Lamble was booked on Sept. 27, 2009, the nurse found him lifeless. No one could revive him.
Like the others, the suit alleged that standard procedures could have saved Lamble’s life.
The same was the case for Curnell, Evans said. For her, the lawyer said, it could have been as simple as making sure she had something to drink.
“You don’t need a medical license to administer Gatorade,” Evans said. “At some point, she would have needed more than simple hydration, but early on, it probably would have worked.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.