Federal jury awards $3 million in San Diego County jail death

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 11, 2014 7:00 PM

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A San Diego federal jury awarded $3 million to the parents of a 21-year-old man who died in a San Diego County jail from an asthma attack, finding that the way the jail dealt with the man's heroin withdrawal violated his civil rights, a lawyer for the man's family said on Tuesday.

Daniel Sisson died in 2011 of an asthma attack complicated by heroin withdrawal while in custody, according to the medical examiner. His death went unnoticed for several hours despite a jail policy of hourly cell checks by deputies, according to testimony.

"The law says that even people in jail have the right not to be left to die," family attorney Christopher Morris said of the late Monday verdict by a U.S. District Court jury.

"The jury focused on the jail policies, which don't meet state standards, and on the poor training for dealing with inmates who are detoxing rather than laying blame with the nurses and deputies," he added.

The county argued unsuccessfully that Sisson, who court records show had previous drug arrests, was solely responsible for his own death.

Morris argued that Sisson suffered from Reiter's Syndrome, a rare and painful arthritis he contracted as a child, and was addicted to prescription painkillers including vicodin and oxycontin. When his family ran out of insurance and money for the medicine, he turned to heroin, Morris told the jury.

After his arrest on June 23, 2011, Sisson was placed in the Vista Detention Facility, about 20 miles north of San Diego. At first he lied, saying he was not withdrawing from heroin, according to testimony.

But by June 24, he told jail medical staff that he was in withdrawal. He was given an anti-nausea drug and an inhaler, but was returned to a general population cell rather than to the medical wing where he could be more closely monitored. 

At around 8 p.m. on June 25, Sisson was found dead by another inmate. By then he had been dead at least several hours, Morris said.

In its verdict, the jury found that the county's cell-checking policy and its inadequate training of employees to deal with heroin withdrawal violated Sisson's civil rights.

But it decided that two nurses and two deputies who were involved in Sisson's handling were not personally negligent, nor was Sisson negligent in his own death, according to the verdict form.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)