Jail, hospital deny claims that San Juan County Detention Center inmates received negligent health care

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — San Juan County and the detention center joined other defendants Monday in denying claims that 25 current and former inmates received inadequate or negligent medical care while incarcerated at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

And they are asking for a jury trial.

The jail admitted that 24 of the 25 inmates involved in the lawsuit were incarcerated at the detention center at some point and admitted some of those inmates received medical care, but denied all allegations of neglect and abuse.

The jail said in its defense that health problems suffered by inmates resulted from their own negligence or fault and that some claims fall outside the statute of limitations. The jail further claims that awarding the plaintiffs punitive damages would violate defendants' constitutional rights under state and federal law.

Punitive damages can include millions of dollars in compensation that exceeds actual damages and is intended to punish egregious behavior and discourage repetition of such conduct.

Deputy County Attorney Doug Echols said Tuesday that the county's insurance policy covers punitive damages.

The jail's denials and defenses echoed previous formal responses filed by its codefendants: San Juan Regional Medical Center and Correctional Healthcare Companies.

Correctional Healthcare Companies argued in its response filed May 28 that the treatment provided by its employees was in accordance with the skill and care ordinarily used by health care providers under similar circumstances.

San Juan Regional Medical Center argued the same in its response filed June 3 and further claimed, among other defenses, that no policy, practice or custom caused the harm alleged by plaintiffs.

The hospital's attorney, Robert Curtis, of Albuquerque, said Tuesday that it is his firm's policy not to comment on litigation.

Ron Childress, of Albuquerque, is representing the county, the jail and jail administrator Tom Havel in the lawsuit. He did not respond to a request for comment.

And Albuquerque attorney Al Park, who is representing Correctional Healthcare Companies, also could not be reached for comment.

As previously reported by The Daily Times, 18 inmates initially filed the lawsuit against the defendants in district court in April claiming negligent medical care. Seven defendants have joined the lawsuit since it was filed.

Presbyterian Medical Services, which is contracted to provide mental health care at the county's detention centers, has also been added as a defendant in the lawsuit, which was moved to federal court on May 26.

Presbyterian Medical Services' Northwest Region Director Mike Renaud declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

According to the company's contract with the county, obtained through a New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act request, PMS first started providing mental health services at the detention center in February 2014.

PMS has not yet filed a response to the allegations, according to court records.

Though the jail, in court documents, admitted that all but one of the inmates were incarcerated at some point at the facility, it denied all allegations made by plaintiff Debbie Nez, including her claim that she was incarcerated.

Nez claims in the lawsuit that she was incarcerated at the detention center in 2013. Nez contacted The Daily Times in May claiming that she was arrested on warrants for failing to appear in court.

"I was throwing up all the way to the jail," she said in May. "After a while, everyone wondered, 'Why is she even here?'"

Nez claims in the lawsuit that she was receiving treatment for cancer at the time and guards denied her medication during her period of incarceration. She said when she was released, her doctor told her a surgical wound had become infected, according to the complaint.

However, according to court records, Nez was last charged with a criminal offense in New Mexico in August 2009. The jail further stated on May 7 that no records exist stating that Nez was ever incarcerated at the detention center.

Nez said in an interview with The Daily Times on Tuesday that she was "amazed" the jail would claim she was not incarcerated.

"I can't believe they could say that," she said. "My husbands, my sons. They know."

Nez insisted in the interview that she was arrested on a warrant issued in San Juan County in 2013.

Attorney Christian Hatfield, of the Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm, is representing the 25 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

He said Tuesday that he did not have any reason to believe Nez was being dishonest. He said until the jail has provided evidence as part of the discovery process, he would not be able to say for certain that Nez was incarcerated at the jail.

"Like in any case, we are going to have a lot more information in three months than we do now," he said. "But we, right now, have a good basis for everything that is in (the lawsuit)."

Hatfield said that he is not yet ready to convert the case to a class-action lawsuit and his law firm is still vetting claims of negligent medical care at the jail.

"There may come a time when it becomes a class-action, but I don't think we are there yet," he said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the defendants are guilty of causing cruel and unusual punishment, negligence and emotional distress, according to the amended lawsuit. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as court-ordered changes in policies and procedures at the detention center.

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