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‘Clerical error’ leads to $8 million judgment against Spokane County in jail death

The failure to respond to a lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died in custody of the Spokane County Jail could cost taxpayers $8 million.

Spokane Superior Court Judge Annette Plese signed a judgment in favor of the estate of Jessica Alvarado earlier this month, with $4 million going to the family for her suffering and another $4 million to Alvarado’s son. Spokane County did not file an answer to the lawsuit for nearly three months, leading to a judgment of default Dec. 2.

Spokane County Risk Manager Steve Bartel took responsibility for what he called a “clerical error” that led to the judgment.

“There were a lot of moving parts,” Bartel said, adding that changes already have been made in the office to ensure the county does not fail to respond to lawsuits in the future. “This has not happened in the 10 years I’ve been here.”

Spokane County will receive a hearing with Plese on Dec. 22. State law says that if the county can prove its error was “inadvertent” and “excusable,” Plese may order the judgment set aside and preparations for trial would resume.

Matthew Albrecht, the attorney representing Alvarado’s estate, said the failure to respond to the lawsuit was “pretty remarkable.”

“It’s the same kind of negligence that caused her to die,” Albrecht said.

Alvarado was booked into Spokane County Jail on Aug. 11, 2012, on outstanding warrants, according to records prepared in an internal investigation of the 29-year-old’s death. She was found unresponsive just after midnight Aug. 13, and an autopsy later confirmed she died after choking on her own vomit, which was likely brought on by methamphetamine toxicity.

The family alleges Alvarado was clearly exhibiting withdrawal symptoms and should have been placed on medical monitoring by jail staff. Alvarado’s cellmate of two days filed an affidavit, saying Alvarado admitted to injecting drugs and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The cellmate said she told jail staff of the drug use and asked to be removed from the cell because of Alvarado’s symptoms, including vomiting.

The county countered, in documents filed a week after judgment was entered in the Alvarado family’s favor, that jail guards checked on her every half hour, and her vital signs were normal during a single examination by jail staff the day before she died.

Cris Kennedy, the former medical director at the Spokane County Jail, wrote in an affidavit that Alvarado never told jail staff what kind of drugs she’d taken, so guards monitored her condition.

“The standard of care is first, to listen to the patient, not what another inmate may have said to an officer,” Kennedy wrote.

Albrecht said it was unlikely Alvarado, or any other person who has taken illicit drugs, would speak with jail staff about their use.

“You’re asking a person who’s probably in jail for substance abuse, to admit to a crime, or live with the risk of death,” Albrecht said.

The estate filed the lawsuit against Spokane County on both Sept. 18 and Sept. 22, according to court records. That was two months after the death of Tammy Heinen, a woman with a leg infection who was found unresponsive in her cell. Heinen was the fourth person to die at the jail between May 4 and July 13, prompting calls for a federal investigation by the Spokane Human Rights Commission.

Spokane County recently settled for $50,000 a federal lawsuit alleging an inmate did not receive the mental health medication he needed for days because of confusion about policies and botched paperwork.

The county says the Auditor’s Office received service of the lawsuit in September, which was two months after the Alvarado estate filed its original $8 million civil claim against the county. The Auditor’s Office forwarded the claims to the Office of Risk Management, which failed to forward them to retained legal counsel so that an answer could be filed.

“I’m not shedding responsibility,” Bartel said. “It’s very unfortunate.”

The county plans to defend against the lawsuit if Plese grants their motion to set aside the $8 million judgment.


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