Last month, we told you about two separate 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.
Now comes a third case attorney David Lane likens to the previous two: the death of Zackary Moffitt, who suffered three days of serious medical issues without treatment before a fatal cardiac arrest. Continue for photos, video, details and the lawsuit Lane filed this week.
Here's how the Lopez matter was characterized in the case's original suit:
On March 17, 2013, in full view of most of the Defendants, a shackled and stripped Christopher Lopez died alone and ignored, on the cold concrete floor of a cell at the San Carlos Correctional Facility. His death could have been easily prevented by most of the defendants had any one of them simply picked up a phone and called for medical help. Instead, the Defendants, all employees of the Colorado Department of Corrections, ultimately made what could pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of a dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body.
As for McGill, the subject of a 2013 cover story, attorney Erica Grossman of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, his co-counsel, synopsized the events of September 2012 for a recent post about the $11 million award.
"Mr. McGill had a stroke in jail at approximately 8 p.m.," Grossman told us. "He called his wife about 8:30 and everyone around him was recognizing stroke symptoms. He had facial droops and his whole right side was weak. But there was a delay in treatment, and he didn't get to the hospital for over sixteen hours. He spent the night in a cell instead of the hospital, knowing he was having a stroke and that he was being ignored by correctional office staff." The episode resulted in permanent medical debilitation, Grossman added: "He was earning $65,000 a year as a construction-project estimator and now he can only do menial filing tasks for about three hours at a time. He's constantly dizzy, can't multitask, has cognitive problems and right-side weakness."
And Moffitt? Lane, who represented Lopez's family and consulted on the McGill case, describes what took place in July 2013 like so.
"Zackary Moffitt had a severe alcohol problem," Lane acknowledges. "He was trying to be sober, but he went on a bender and his girlfriend checked him into Summit County Medical Center.
"He was admitted with a blood alcohol content of .392, which could kill someone who was not a raging alcoholic. 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 continues, "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.
"The jail was 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."
Continue for more about the lawsuit over Zackary Moffitt's death, including photos, video and the complete document.
Moffitt is 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 it's Lane's contention that these particulars didn't matter to the staffers at the Summit County jail. "Their attitude is, 'They're just inmates. Who cares?'"
Nonetheless, Lane stresses that jailers are required by law to attend to the medical needs of prisoners, and his suit maintains that employees didn't do so in this instance.
Summit County hasn't formally responded to the suit; officials have 21 days after the filing to do so. However, Lane expects them to point out that Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Bowen reportedly declined to file criminal charges in the case following a formal review by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to Lane, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office was among the agencies that contributed to the inquiry, "and that really makes me laugh, since Jeffco just got tagged for an $11 million verdict in the McGill case. And shock of shocks, police investigating police found that police acted appropriately."
Obviously, he disagrees with this conclusion -- and he sees parallels with the Lopez and McGill incidents. "Christopher Lopez's family settled for $3 million because there were serious issues involving 11th Amendment immunity; the people who ignored his serious medical needs were state actors and the state has 11th Amendment immunity from lawsuits. But Summit County doesn't have any 11th Amendment immunity, so I think this is a stronger case from that perspective. And even though the video of Zackary going through withdrawal doesn't have the same quality and consistency as the video in the Lopez case, it's pretty well documented by deputy's reports. And the law is precisely the same for Department of Corrections employees as it is for county jail employees: They're required to attend to the serious medical needs of every inmate."
The case took a while to get going because of what Lane describes as a court battle between Zackary's common-law wife, from whom he was separated, and his girlfriend at the time he died. However, he stresses that neither of the women "stand to gain a penny from any of this litigation. The only beneficiaries are his minor children: two cute little girls. And both of them are united very strongly that these little girls deserve whatever we can get for them."
In Lane's opinion, the only way to prevent situations like those involving Lopez, McGill and Moffitt is to "smack [authorities] as hard as you can with multi-million dollar verdicts. There has to be political pressure put on these people to stop believing that inmates' lives don't matter. And the only way that pressure can be brought to bear by any lawyer is a giant verdict."
Look below to see a 7News report about the lawsuit, followed by the complaint in its entirety.
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Note: In the original version of this post, David Lane referred to Zackary Moffitt's ex-wife, but she tells us the two of them were a common-law couple who never formally married or divorced and were separated at the time of his death. The text above reflects this new information.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.