A jury awarded a Utah mother $10 million after finding that her daughter was denied medical care while an inmate at Davis County Jail and died as a result.
The case stems from a December 2016 incident in which Heather Ashton Miller, 28, fell from her top bunk at the jail and ruptured her spleen, nearly splitting it in two, according to the state medical examiner.
Cynthia Stella told KSL in 2018, when the lawsuit was filed, that her daughter was in obvious pain after her fall, but all officers did was move her to another cell with a lower bunk.
About 2 hours and 44 minutes later, at minimum, according to Stella's attorney Tad Draper, Miller was brought to the medical area of the Farmington jail. EMTs were called to transport her to a local hospital. But by then "she (was) so far gone" that it was too late, Draper said in 2018.
Miller was pronounced dead at a local hospital on Dec. 21, 2016, at 10:06 p.m., about four hours after falling. The family said the medical examiner found 1.3 liters of blood in her body cavity.
The jury found a "preponderance of evidence" to support the following claims and awarded compensatory damages accordingly, the verdict filed July 22 shows:
- Jail nurse Marvin Anderson was aware of "substantial risk" to inmate Miller but failed to verify it; consciously failed to take reasonable measures; and was "deliberately indifferent" to Miller's medical needs ($300,000).
- Davis County is liable for not adequately training or supervising staff, even though personnel were aware that inmates fall off top bunks in the Davis County Jail about once a month, according to the verdict and the 2018 complaint ($3,850,000).
- Davis County is liable to Miller for subjecting her to "unnecessary rigor" ($3,850,000). "Unnecessary rigor" relates to the personal treatment received by prisoners, according to the Brigham Young University Journal of Public Law.
- Davis County is liable to Stella for subjecting Miller to "unnecessary rigor" ($2,000,000).
The jury did not find Anderson liable for any other claim; it also found that Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson and Davis County Jail medical supervisor James Ondricek, also named as defendants in the complaint, were not liable for any claims.
It did not award any punitive damages.
Stella said in 2018 that if officers or nurses at the Davis County Jail had checked on her daughter every 15 minutes, or even every 30 minutes, she would be alive today.
"My daughter meant everything to me. She was raised in a good home," she said tearfully at that time. "She didn't deserve to die by falling from a bunk and no one paying attention because they assumed she was drug withdrawn."
Miller was arrested on Dec. 20, 2016, in Clearfield and booked into the Davis County Jail for investigation of meth and heroin possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. She was in a car with another man who fled before being arrested. Drugs were found in the car, according to the family.
On Dec. 21, just before 6 p.m., Miller fell from the top bunk in her cell, according to the lawsuit.
"No one questions she ruptured her spleen at that time," Draper said in 2018.
But Anderson didn't do anything "except see she (was) in excruciating, debilitating pain," he said.
Miller, who Draper said took 19 seconds to walk 20 feet and then had to "scoot on her butt" down a flight of stairs to get to a cell with a lower bunk, was in obvious pain. But the lawsuit claims Miller's vital signs were never taken.
"(Miller) immediately showed severe trauma, symptoms of debilitating pain, couldn't function, couldn't do anything. Couldn't call anyone else for help. She's at the mercy of her captors. They put her there and they ignored her," Draper said.
Once she was in her new cell, jail staffers didn't check on her for almost three hours, Draper said.
"Had jail staff monitored Ms. Miller's vitals (blood pressure, pulse and temperature) they would have discovered obvious symptoms indicating massive internal blood loss and/or made a determination that Ms. Miller was facing a life-threatening injury," the lawsuit states.
According to Stella, who didn't even know her daughter had been arrested until she called the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office to confirm her death, one of the hardest parts of the tragedy was allegedly being told by jail officers that they assumed Miller was going through drug withdrawals because of why she was arrested.
"One of the worst things to hear from them was, 'Well, we just assumed she was on drugs so we didn't pay too much (attention) to her,'" she said.
A toxicology test performed as part of the autopsy showed Miller had trace amounts of meth and marijuana in her system and no heroin, Stella said.