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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County’s $8 million ‘mistake’ in jail death given reprieve by judge

A judge on Friday reversed an order that Spokane County pay $8 million to the family of a woman who died in jail, sparing taxpayers from footing the bill for what government officials call “a mistake.”

“What’s just and proper is that this case needs to be heard on the merits,” said Spokane County Judge Annette Plese before throwing out her ruling from a month ago.

The parents of the dead woman, Jessica Alvarado, were in court for Plese’s decision Friday. Alvarado, 29, died after choking on her vomit while in custody of the Spokane County Jail on Aug. 13, 2012. An autopsy showed methamphetamine in her system, and Alvarado’s family argues jail staff did not provide adequate health care to prevent her death.

Matthew Albrecht and David DeWolfe, the attorneys representing Alvarado’s estate, said after the hearing that Plese employed the wrong standard in her decision and that an appeal was possible.

The county says jail staff followed policy the day Alvarado died, with guards checking on her condition every half-hour during rounds. They also said she denied taking drugs when asked by jail medical staff, though a cellmate filed a statement with the court that Alvarado told her she was an addict.

The family filed a lawsuit in September, after the county did not respond to a claim requesting $8 million in damages. Three months passed without a response from the county, and Plese entered a judgment against the county for that amount Dec. 2. Within a week, the county had filed its response, citing a clerical error as the reason for failing to respond.

Spokane County Risk Manager Steve Bartel, who was in Plese’s courtroom Friday afternoon, took blame for the failure.

Heather Yakely, an attorney representing the county, said the error should not prevent county officials from offering a defense.

“Spokane County made a mistake,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Yakely said courts across the state have ruled in similar situations, and judges rolled back judgments to allow defendants to make their case before penalties were handed down. She argued that Plese should not weigh the strength of either side’s argument but should reopen the case if she found the county could provide evidence they had a defense against the claims of the lawsuit.

“Now is not the time for the court to have to weigh the facts, and which fact is correct, and which fact is not correct,” Yakely said.

But Albrecht, arguing for Alvarado’s estate, said Friday afternoon was the time for Spokane County to present its facts because of its failure to respond to the lawsuit.

“We’re here, not because the county made one mistake, but we’re here because this is a part of a long series of negligent behavior by the county,” Albrecht told Plese. He said the county was served with a tort claim, and two notices of a lawsuit, without a response.

The jail came under fire in August from the Spokane Human Rights Commission, which asked that the Justice Department look into four deaths there between May and July.

The county argued in filings that Alvarado’s vitals were normal and that she didn’t appear in medical distress prior to jail guards finding her unresponsive shortly after midnight Aug. 13, 2012.

But Albrecht said reports indicated Alvarado had difficulty removing clothes at the order of jail staff just hours before she died, showing difficulties in motor skills and brain activity.

Albrecht also said it was inappropriate for Spokane County to argue that Plese should vacate the judgment because it would be burdensome to taxpayers.

“It would be completely inappropriate for the plaintiff to say, ‘The county has a lot of money, therefore the damages should be high,’ ” Albrecht said. “It’s just as inappropriate for the county to say, ‘Consider the taxpayers. Don’t give her full compensation for her damages.’ ”

Plese’s ruling from the bench reopens the case. The next hearing is scheduled for February.

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