Syracuse, N.Y. — Onondaga County has admitted its employees’ negligence caused the death of a jail inmate three years ago from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.Thanks to Prison Legal News for bringing this to public attention.
A trial over how much the county must pay the inmate’s family was scheduled to begin tomorrow in state Supreme Court. But the trial was postponed because of an illness in the family of one of the county’s lawyers. No new date was set.
Chuniece Patterson, 21, died Nov. 12, 2009, at the Onondaga County Justice Center jail, 14 hours after she started complaining in her cell about abdominal pain.
The state Commission of Correction found two years ago that a nurse acted with incompetence by misinterpreting and minimizing the significance of Patterson’s vomiting and complaints of pain, and that a sheriff’s deputy ignored obvious signs that Patterson needed help.
In June, the county Legislature approved a $212,500 offer to settle the lawsuit filed by Patterson’s mother, Chundra Smith. But Smith turned down the offer because she wanted the county to be held publicly accountable, said her lawyer, Janet Izzo.
Smith didn’t think deputies, jail nurses, or Sheriff Kevin Walsh ever acknowledged in pretrial depositions that if they’d followed their own procedures, Patterson would not have died, Izzo said.
“Chundra felt that there were already rules in place at the jail that should’ve prevented her daughter’s death,” Izzo said. “From Chundra’s perspective, it’s not about the money offered by the county. It’s about them being publicly held accountable in a court of law for allowing her daughter to suffer and die.”
The county and Smith reached an agreement last week in which the county admitted its employees’ negligence caused her daughter’s death, Izzo said.
County Attorney Gordon Cuffy said the county admitted liability, but declined to comment further. Walsh would not comment because the case is the subject of a lawsuit.
Patterson’s death came 13 years after another inmate, Lucinda Batts, suffered a similar death at the Justice Center. After her death from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, the state recommended changes in the jail’s policy and training of employees.
One former deputy, Diane Stech, was involved in both cases. In the 1996 death of Batts, Stech told a nurse that she thought Batts was faking when she complained of pain, according to jail records. Two hours later, Batts collapsed and later died at a local hospital.
In Patterson’s case, Stech was making rounds Nov. 12 when she saw Patterson on the floor four times between 7 and 7:45 a.m., according to Stech’s report. The first time, Patterson obeyed Stech’s order to get up, the report said. Fifteen minutes later, Patterson was on the floor again, leaning on the toilet and splashing water in her face, Stech wrote. The deputy told her to stop and Patterson rolled onto the floor, the report said.
At 7:30 a.m., Stech found Patterson on the floor again. The deputy went into the cell, saw the plastic cup in the toilet and removed it, the report said. The deputy looked at Patterson, told her to get off the floor, and “it looked as if the inmate looked at me,” Stech wrote. She then continued her tour. Other inmates said they’d heard Patterson moaning in pain through the night.
On her last visit to Patterson’s cell, Stech found her unresponsive, the report said. Stech called in other deputies and medical workers, who tried to revive her, the records show.
The deputies’ conduct was a violation of department policy that says they must remain alert for inmates who are too sick to help themselves, the commission said. The state faulted Stech for failing to recognize Patterson was in need of medical attention, and recommended that the sheriff’s office discipline Stech.
The fact that Patterson was three months pregnant was noted in her medical record at the jail. The records give no indication that anyone examined her abdomen after her complaints of pain. She was never given a pelvic exam or ultrasound, either of which would’ve shown she had an ectopic pregnancy in her fallopian tube and would’ve probably indicated that it had ruptured, according to an uninvolved physician interviewed about the case by The Post-Standard. Surgery could’ve saved her life, he said.
The commission said registered nurse Missy Clayton “completely misinterpreted and minimized the significance of pain and vomiting” in Patterson, and recommended that the state Office of Professional Discipline investigate her conduct. Clayton provided “grossly and flagrantly negligent” nursing care, the commission said.
Stech and Clayton are among the witnesses whose videotaped statements will be played in the nonjury trial before state Supreme Court Justice Deborah Karalunas.
Izzo said she hopes to use those statements to show the pain Patterson suffered.
Shortly after the legislature approved the settlement offer in June, the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office told Izzo that it had concluded its investigation into the death and found no criminal conduct, she said.
Two days before her death, Patterson was arrested for skipping her court date for one of her five arrests over five months. She was accused of walking into a South Side convenience store drunk, breaking a glass counter by slamming a beer bottle on it, then smashing a glass door by punching it. She then walked out with two stolen beers, according to court records.
Two months earlier, she was arrested for throwing a beer through her friend’s living room window during a fight. And she was charged with smashing another friend’s cell phone as he tried to call 911 while they fought, court records said.