Cost of Letting Hallucinating, Detoxing Inmate Zackary Moffitt Die: $3.5 Million

Zachary Moffitt took three days to die.
Zachary Moffitt took three days to die. Family photo via Denver7
In 2013, Zackary Moffitt died of a heart attack in Summit County after three days during which authorities essentially ignored escalating medical symptoms associated with alcohol detoxing, including hallucinations and repeated vomiting of green bile. Now, more than four years later, Summit County has agreed to pay Moffitt's still-young children $3.5 million to settle the case.

The lawsuit in the Moffitt case, which is accessible below, was filed in January 2015, a month after huge verdicts in two other cases related to health care in area jails: The Colorado Department of Corrections agreed to pay $3 million in the death of Christopher Lopez, and a jury voted for an $11 million award to Ken McGill, who suffered a stroke behind bars.

Here's how attorney David Lane, who represents Moffitt's family, summed up the arguments laid out in the complaint for our original post.

"Zackary Moffitt had a severe alcohol problem," Lane acknowledged. "He was trying to be sober, but he went on a bender and his girlfriend checked him into Summit County Medical Center."

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The Summit County Medical Center.
Google Maps
Moffitt "was admitted with a blood alcohol content of .392, which could kill someone who was not a raging alcoholic," Lane went on. "But Zackary decided he didn't need any treatment. He unplugged his IV and got dressed and walked out — and security tried to stop him. He ended up in the parking lot, where he sat down."

At that point, Lane said, "security called the Summit County Sheriff's Department, and a deputy arrived and ran Zackary's name — and he learned that he had a warrant out on a prior order of the court that ordered sobriety. Zackary was obviously in violation of that order, but instead of doing what he should have done, which is recognize a serious medical need, the deputy took him to jail."

According to Lane, personnel at the Summit County Justice Center detention facility were "fully aware of his blood alcohol content, and over the next three days, his condition deteriorated in a very predictable way if you understand delirium tremens," shorthanded as the DTs. "He started to vomit green bile, and Zackary was very concerned. He kept asking deputies for help because of this green stuff that was coming out of his body. He also began to physically shake, hallucinate, become suicidal and act in a completely bizarre fashion, stripping naked in his cell and telling deputies he was hearing voices. And then, on the third day, he went into cardiac arrest. He was finally hospitalized at that point, but it was too late. Zackary died."

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Attorney David Lane represented Zackary Moffitt's family in the lawsuit.
9News file photo
Moffitt was described in his obituary as an "outdoors guy" with a "huge heart" who was loved by everyone, including his two young daughters, ages five and twelve when he died. But Lane contended that these particulars didn't matter to the staffers at the Summit County jail. "Their attitude is, 'They're just inmates. Who cares?'"

Summit County Sheriff Jamie FitzSimons, who succeeded Sheriff John Minor, one of the lawsuit's targets, is trying his best to change that perception. After the settlement was announced, FitzSimons told Denver7 that changes been made made at the jail to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future, including an improved surveillance-camera system. Moreover, medical staffers are now available 24/7 and meet with new inmates — and a special medication package has been developed for anyone who's detoxing.

The $3.5 million settlement isn't official yet; since the beneficiaries are Moffitt's daughters, a probate court will have to sign off. But the pact is the latest example of how the cost of health care at jails can go up astronomically when inmates die from the lack of it.

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The Summit County Justice Center.
Google Maps
Reached this morning about the settlement, Lane says the policy alterations outlined by Sheriff FitzSimons represent positive developments "if they're more than just words." He also adds more details to his previous account, revealing that the deputy sheriff who admitted Moffitt to the jail claimed inaccurately that he had gotten medical clearance to do so. Additionally, he notes that "the captain of the jail said, 'Well, we knew he needed medical help, so we called our contract doctor and found out he was on vacation. So what else could we do?'"

Lane answers that question with more of this own: "How about almost anything? How about calling another doctor? How about taking him to a hospital? How about getting him treatment? If the captain's son was in jail and the contract doctor was on vacation, do you think he'd just shrug his shoulders and say, 'Oh, well. I guess there's nothing we can do'?"

Despite the size of the settlement, Lane admits to being frustrated that "municipalities keep paying the freight and never discipline these cops. The minute a deputy sheriff or a cop loses his car or loses his house, this kind of thing will stop. But the consequences are left to the taxpayers. And until taxpayers tell their elected officials that they've had enough and expect them to get involved and do something about this as a policy matter, it's just going to keep happening."

Click to read the original Zackary Moffitt complaint.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts