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18 inmates sue San Juan County jail claiming negligent medical care

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Eighteen current and former San Juan County Adult Detention Center inmates have filed a lawsuit against the jail and its healthcare providers claiming they were denied basic medical care while incarcerated, which resulted in pain, physical injury, impairment and disfiguration.

The plaintiffs claim in a complaint filed in district court on April 17 that the jail's healthcare providers — San Juan Regional Medical Center and Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. — showed a "severe and deliberate indifference" to their medical needs.

They seek not only financial restitution but court-ordered changes at the jail in policies, procedures, supervision, training and contractual payments for medical services. They request that these changes be made by a court-appointed authority, rather than by county officials, according to the complaint.

Attorney Christian Hatfield — of the Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm, which represents the plaintiffs — said for now the lawsuit is small enough that each individual claim can be processed, but if more current or former inmates come forward with credible claims of negligence it could turn into a class-action lawsuit.

Medical center spokesman Haroon Ahmad said in a statement that it is the policy of the hospital to avoid discussing ongoing lawsuits.

"However, the hospital believes it has meritorious defenses and will vigorously defend this litigation," Ahmad said in the statement. "We look forward to presenting our viewpoint in court."

Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. is a Tennessee-based company that provides medical services to detention facilities in 37 states. It also operates under the name Correct Care Solutions, according to records filed with the Office of the Secretary of State. The company could not be reached for comment.

Aaron Eaton, currently incarcerated on charges that include conspiracy to commit narcotic or methamphetamine trafficking, claims jail staff initially ignored his requests for treatment causing a delay that threatened his life. Eaton said in the complaint that for five days he requested to see a doctor due to pain in his groin and abdomen.

He filled out multiple medical request forms, the complaint states, but was told by jail staff there were too many inmates requesting medical attention to honor all of them.

Eaton's mother finally convinced a sergeant to take Eaton's concerns seriously and he was transported to San Juan County Regional Medical Center, the complaint states.

At the hospital, medical personnel diagnosed Eaton with acute appendicitis and he was scheduled for immediate surgery, the complaint states.

Eaton, 34, claims he suffered intense pain and could have died due to the jail's delay in providing medical care.

Another inmate, Jesse Burke, claims that while he was incarcerated in July 2014 he suffered a fall that resulted in teeth becoming embedded in the flesh of his mouth. He claims the wound went untreated for approximately two days.

Several other inmates complained of receiving incorrect prescription medications or not receiving prescribed medications at all, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs claim the defendants committed constitutional violations, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter defended the jail and its contractors.

"We get calls all the time — all the time — about how my son is not getting his medicine," he said. "My son is not feeling well. It's a constant occurrence. The hospital and the medical contractors that actually run the medical for the jail are extremely thorough, where if someone wanted to come in and investigate, they can look at the records of when and where their son was treated, the prescriptions, all of that."

Hatfield alleges in the lawsuit that the county and jail were not simply negligent in providing medical care, but intentionally refused to transport inmates in need of serious medical treatment to save the county money in transportation and hospitalization costs.

"There are considerations in all organizations that have to run on a budget, but that shouldn't trump basic human rights," Hatfield said, adding later. "Deliberate indifference can constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

According to an intergovernmental services agreement for the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, the jail's operating budget increased approximately 1.7 percent from fiscal year 2011-2012 to fiscal year 2013-2014. During that same period, the number of inmates housed at the facility increased by 55 to 716.

The jail will spend $60.66 per inmate in 2016, according to the agreement. By comparison, Sandoval County spends $70 per inmate, Bernalillo County spends $73.69 per inmate and Doña Ana County spends $97.87 per inmate.

Carpenter said that the county has cut $53 million from its budget since 2009, but those cuts mostly came because the county had paid off debt. Only $8 million has come from the general fund, he said, and the county's public safety budget has been largely untouched.

"We have frozen positions in every office, except the detention center," Carpenter said.

In fact, he said, in the next fiscal year the county will be hiring two new medical employees to treat mental illness and a new nurse. Carpenter said the San Juan Regional Medical Center requested the new staff positions.

Mitchell Burns, another attorney in the law firm, said that Correctional Healthcare Companies and San Juan Regional Medical Center also provided substandard care to increase their profit margins.

The attorneys said they investigated the claims for approximately six months and hope more information to support the claims will be revealed in discovery.

Neither the jail nor its healthcare providers have yet filed a written response to the lawsuit in court.

The Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm previously filed a wrongful death claim against the jail in September on behalf of a husband whose wife died while incarcerated at the facility in September 2012.

The jail filed a response Jan. 7 claiming the death was unavoidable and denied there was negligence.

As reported by The Daily Times on March 9, the San Juan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the March 3 death of Jesus Marquez, 34, at the jail.

Detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln said Friday his detectives investigate every death at the jail as a matter of policy.

He confirmed that two other inmates — William "Billy" Carter and Sharon Jones — also died in the last four months while incarcerated at San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and stgarrison@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.