The family of an Airway Heights Corrections Center inmate who died after guards allegedly ignored his medical condition and treated his diabetic episode as a behavioral problem won an $8 million verdict from a Spokane County jury on Friday, twice the amount the family requested.
Dale Stahl, 57, was a “brittle diabetic,” someone whose Type 1 diabetes frequently caused large swings in his blood sugar level. He died April 7, 2012, after he was restrained for a long period of time after suffering hypoglycemic shock, his family said in the lawsuit.
“Rather than call 911, corrections officers treated it like a behavioral issue,” said family attorney Nathan Roberts. “They restrained him chest down on the floor with guards holding him down.”
The state Department of Corrections issued a brief statement in response to the verdict late Friday that said the department will confer with attorneys and “discuss options” about how to respond to the decision.
“It’s a tragic situation when an offender passes away in custody and our thoughts and concerns are with the Stahl family over their loss,” Assistant Secretary of Prisons Steve Sinclair said in the statement. “The DOC strives to provide a safe and healthy environment for offenders, including appropriate medical care.”
Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said a critical incident review was completed after Stahl’s death, but he was unaware of its conclusions or whether anyone was disciplined.
Stahl’s daughter, Brittany Haun, said the prison would not provide answers in the aftermath of her father’s death about what had happened. Stahl was incoherent and flailing his arms and legs. Once six corrections officers got him under control they continued to hold him in the prone position, Haun said. After 14 minutes of struggling, with their knees pressing down on his back, Stahl went limp. At that point corrections officers called 911, but they continued to hold him on the floor and didn’t attempt to treat him, Haun said.
“In essence, these staff had been restraining a corpse,” Roberts wrote in court documents last year.
Stahl, who was handcuffed, was not breathing and did not have a pulse. Firefighters attempted CPR but could not revive him.
The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office did an autopsy and ruled the death natural, caused by atherosclerotic coronary artery disease. Diabetes was listed as a contributing factor.
The medical examiner’s determination was “based on information given by the Department of Corrections,” Roberts said. “They weren’t honest with the medical examiner in terms of describing the manner of his death.”
The staff at the prison was aware of Stahl’s diabetes, Roberts said. Stahl’s cellmate, who called for help, told corrections officers that he thought Stahl was having an episode of low blood sugar.
Stahl had been at the Airway Heights prison for six months after he pleaded guilty to a charge of vehicular manslaughter in Tacoma. He’d gone out to celebrate his birthday with a good friend in 2010 and crashed into a parked car on the way home, possibly due to low blood sugar, Roberts said. His friend Michael Campbell died, and Stahl pleaded guilty because he had alcohol in his system, Roberts said.
Stahl fled the scene and initially told investigators he was unaware of the crash, according to a 2011 (Tacoma) News Tribune article. Court records say he later admitted to being the driver and said he ran because he was scared, the newspaper reported.
Haun said she believed her father was trying to do the right thing by pleading guilty.
“He felt absolutely horrible about it,” she said. “It just destroyed him emotionally.”
Haun said her father had worked as a machinist for Boeing for 17 years before nerve damage in his hands and feet caused by his diabetes forced him to quit. The two would often spend their weekends together looking at old cars and attending auctions.
“We were really close,” Haun said. “He was my best friend. He was a great dad.”
Roberts said he asked the jury to award the family $4 million.
“I encouraged them to go higher if they thought that was necessary in terms of justice,” he said.
Haun said she feels like justice was done and the verdict has given her a sense of closure.
“I’m hoping that they’ll do a better job training their employees in terms of medical emergencies but also in the proper way to restrain inmates when they’re having a medical emergency,” she said.
“I also wanted to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen to other inmates at Airway Heights or in Washington.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter