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Former inmate sues King County, claiming he was badly injured by scalding hot jail shower

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 26, 2020

By Lewis Kamb Seattle Times

A former Shoreline firefighter who claims he was badly burned by scalding hot water from a shower in the King County Jail last year has sued the county for negligence.

Jason Howton, 45, of Auburn, filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court on Nov. 20, contending that while he was being held in the jail on May 27, 2019, he suffered burns to “various parts of his body including … his left shoulder, chest, abdomen, and genitals” after a shower’s water temperature momentarily spiked.

Howton’s suit contends jail officials later “recorded” the shower’s water temperature at 158 degrees – nearly 40 degrees hotter than recommended standards.

“We have no reason to believe that these (water) temperatures were where they were supposed to be,” said Craig Sandberg, one of Howton’s attorneys. “No inmate should be able to get burned while taking a shower while under care of the King County Jail.”

Noah Haglund, a jail spokesperson, declined to comment on Howton’s claims, citing pending litigation.

But the jail staff’s reports about the incident, released this week by King County at request of The Seattle Times, contradicts the extent of Howton’s alleged injuries and other claims in his lawsuit.

Among other details, the reports state that jail staff photographed skin on the left side of Howton’s upper body that appeared “extremely red.” But within a day, after Howton was treated with burn cream and a bandage, the redness had disappeared. The jail reports also show a building engineer tested the shower’s water temperature shortly after Howton complained, finding “the highest reading was at 111 degrees” – far less than what Howton’s suit claims and within normal limits.

“With the exception of the complainant’s allegation, there is no additional information to support the water was scalding hot,” a jail commander concluded two days after the incident.

Howton was being held in the jail at the time while awaiting trial on a drug charge stemming from a traffic stop in Snoqualmie six days earlier, court records show. Police arrested Howton after allegedly finding a large amount of methamphetamine, some heroin, illegal drug paraphernalia and a stolen gun in the Cadillac he was driving, the records show. Howton later pleaded guilty to a single felony count of illegal drug possession and was sentenced to 90 days of electronic home monitoring.

During the traffic stop leading to his arrest, Howton told a Snoqualmie officer that he was a Shoreline firefighter, according to a police report. But Shoreline Fire Chief Matt Cowan said Tuesday that Howton “separated” from the department on June 4, 2013 – nearly six years before last year’s arrest.

Howton’s lawsuit doesn’t reference his work or specify the charge that led to his jail stay. His lawyer said Tuesday the criminal case is “not germane” to the lawsuit.

According to Howton’s suit, King County inmates can operate jail showers by pressing a button, but they have no control over water temperature. The suit contends that after the incident, “King County recorded the water temperature from the subject shower as 158-degrees Fahrenheit” – two degrees higher than the temperature known for water to create a thermal scald burn on skin within one second of exposure.

When asked this week about discrepancies between Howton’s lawsuit and the jail’s reports that said the shower’s temperature reading was at 111 degrees, Sandberg acknowledged the 158-degree figure cited in the suit came from Howton, not an official jail report.

“However, my client wouldn’t have gotten burned if the water was only 111 degrees, and they produced photos of his burns,” said Sandberg, a Chicago-based lawyer who is teaming with the Seattle law firm Anderson-Santiago on the case.

Whether or not the redness of Howton’s skin disappeared within a day, Sandberg said “his injuries were certainly painful and severe, and they persisted for some time.”

“Thankfully, his skin didn’t blister and slough off,” Sandberg said. “But they did cause terrible injuries to his skin and damages to the nerves.”

While his legal team now represents only Howton in the case, Sandberg said his client is “aware of other people that had experienced flashes and spikes in water temperature in the jail’s showers.”

A county review of damage claims and inmate grievances, done Tuesday at The Times’ request, turned up no other records of injuries or complaints related to overly hot showers at the jail since Jan. 1, 2019, Haglund said in his email.

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