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Jury awards $27 million to the estate of woman who died in Spokane County Jail

Cindy Lou Hill is seen in this undated photo provided by her family. Hill, then 55, died in August 2018 at the Spokane County Jail. A U.S. District Court jury on Tuesday decided that Hill's estate will receive $27 million in damages for her death.   (Family of Cindy Lou Hill)
Cindy Lou Hill is seen in this undated photo provided by her family. Hill, then 55, died in August 2018 at the Spokane County Jail. A U.S. District Court jury on Tuesday decided that Hill's estate will receive $27 million in damages for her death.  (Family of Cindy Lou Hill)

The estate of a woman who died in the Spokane County Jail will receive $27 million in damages, a U.S. District Court jury decided on Tuesday.

Cindy Lou Hill was arrested on Aug. 21, 2018, for heroin possession and booked into the Spokane County Jail. Four days later, the 55-year-old died in her cell from an infection caused by a ruptured intestine.

Hill’s estate sued Spokane County and NaphCare, the jail’s in-house medical provider.

Edwin Budge, the estate’s attorney, argued in court that both the county and NaphCare were liable for Hill’s death after failing to provide her with adequate medical treatment.

On Aug. 25, 2018, Hill complained of intense abdominal pain. NaphCare nurse Hannah Gubitz found her on the floor of her cell in the fetal position, screaming. Hill couldn’t get to the door for Gubitz to examine her, so her cellmate dragged her across the room.

After that examination, Hill was placed in a medical cell. Corrections officers checked in on her often, but she didn’t receive any additional medical examinations – she refused one at 3 p.m. Hill was found dead at 5:25 p.m. An autopsy revealed her duodenum had ruptured, which led to a bacterial infection that killed her.

Hill should obviously have been taken to a doctor or the emergency room, Budge said.

“You do not take chances. It’s common sense,” he said, adding later that “a grocery store would do more if someone slipped and fell in one of their aisles.”

Budge told the jury that NaphCare and Spokane County acted negligently and deprived Hill of her Constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment by failing to provide her with medical care.

Budge asked the jury to award Hill’s estate $8 million in compensatory damages. He also argued that NaphCare should pay an additional $18 million to $36 million in punitive damages.

Ketia Wick, NaphCare’s attorney, argued that the company wasn’t negligent and should pay $0 for Hill’s death.

Hill’s vital signs looked good in the morning, Wick said, adding that her symptoms were consistent with the heroin withdrawal she was experiencing and didn’t merit a trip to the emergency room.

Wick said Gubitz did her job appropriately.

“She used her best clinical judgment based on what she knew at the time,” Wick said. “The cause of Ms. Hill’s death was an unexpected, sudden condition that no one could have known about.”

Attorney John Justice, representing Spokane County, kept his remarks short. He argued that the county is responsible only for corrections issues at the jail.

Medical issues are entirely NaphCare’s responsibility, Justice said, and “whether or not (Hill) should have been brought to a doctor or taken to the emergency room is a medical question.”

Spokane County in May lost its right to deny responsibility for Hill’s death, after U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke ruled the county had overwritten six hours of surveillance video critical to the case “with an intent to avoid its litigation obligations.”

But even after Dimke’s ruling, the jury was left to make a handful of decisions on its own.

First, the jurors had to put a dollar amount on the damages owed to Hill’s estate for her death.

They decided to award $2 million for the pain and suffering Hill experienced before her death and $750,000 for the “enjoyment of life” she lost.

The jurors also had to apportion responsibility for Hill’s death. They decided NaphCare would pay 90% of the $2.75 million figure and Spokane County would pay 10%.

After agreeing to dollar amounts and percentages for compensatory damages, the jurors had to decide whether NaphCare should pay punitive damages, and how much.

Punitive damages essentially serve as fines. Their purpose in this case, Budge said, would be to deter NaphCare from making similar mistakes in the future. He asked the jury to pick a number that would “sting.”

The jury settled on $24 million. Those dollars will be awarded to Hill’s estate, along with the $2.75 million in compensatory damages.

NaphCare attorney Christopher Quirk motioned after the verdict for a new trial.

Budge said he hopes the verdict will lead to real change in how medical treatment is delivered at the Spokane County Jail.

“The jury sent a strong message that NaphCare’s conduct was completely unacceptable,” he said. “People in the jail are entitled to the constitutional right to medical care.”

Hill liked playing the slots at the casino with her sister, Budge said. She loved Chinese food. She was a mother, a sister and an aunt. She deserved better than to die in a cell, Budge said.

“I’m proud that today the justice system worked exactly as it was supposed to.”

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