Lawsuit blames Sacramento County in inmate’s death
The Sacramento Bee, August 21, 2009
William Francis Sams died an agonizing death at age 27 while an inmate at the Sacramento County Main Jail. Nobody disputes it.
A perforated duodenal peptic ulcer killed him, but that was learned at the autopsy, not diagnosed at the jail.
His mother, Marilee Ann Hewitt, and her attorneys are convinced his death was preventable. The county and its attorneys dispute that.
Nonetheless, the county has paid Hewitt $1.45 million to make her lawsuit go away.
The county’s position is that medical experts are divided on whether Dr. Tamara Sherri Robinson, who treated Sams at the jail, is guilty of malpractice, and a battle of experts before a jury is chancy.
Sams, who used cocaine and methamphetamine on a regular basis, was arrested for cocaine possession on the evening of June 7, 2006. He died early June 15, after excruciating abdominal pain for almost 48 hours and, near the end, vomiting blood.
Hewitt’s attorney, Geri Lynn Green, said in court papers that Sams’ death resulted from a “maelstrom of misdiagnoses and deliberate indifference to serious medical needs,” in violation of constitutional rights.
“The jail’s medical care system has been in drastic need of overhaul for many years,” Green said Thursday in an e-mail from Istanbul. “The county’s own expert on jail policies and procedures found that the delays in treatment violated Mr. Sams’ right to have access to medical care.”
County attorney Van Longyear countered in court papers that policies and procedures of the jail’s medical system met “various standards, including those set by California law.”
“The physical presentation presented by Mr. Sams did not suggest … a perforated ulcer,” said Longyear.
“Tragically, Mr. Sams’ perforated ulcer was not diagnosed and, when (his) condition turned for the worst, classic signs of shock were not recognized, and so emergency policies and procedures were not followed in time to save him,” Longyear acknowledged.
Sams was brought to sick call at 8 p.m. June 13, complaining of severe stomach pain. A nurse assessed his problem as possible gastroesophageal reflux disease, encouraged him to increase his fluid intake and ordered milk of magnesia at bedtime for three days.
Sams returned to sick call the next afternoon, reporting continued gastric distress and severe abdominal pain. The nurse referred him to Robinson, a board-certified internist. He told her he had a burning pain in his stomach and throat and had been vomiting. He groaned with pain.
“I need to go to the hospital,” Sams told Robinson.
She prescribed a “GI cocktail” of four medications and held him for observation.
When next she checked, he was sitting on his bed crying and told her he had been vomiting acid. She prescribed medications for anxiety, nausea, and acid irritation and held him for observation. An hour later she concluded his abdominal pain was “non-surgical.”
She ordered an abdominal X-ray and other tests she knew could not be done until morning. She wanted to see him in two days, prescribed pain medication and ordered him returned to his cell.
A deputy reported at 10:30 p.m. that Sams was vomiting blood, and nurse Edgar Diza said he had already been seen. Then around midnight, another deputy took Sams to the medical unit.
He was dizzy, his skin was cold and his head was perspiring. Diza recorded that Sams’ resting pulse was faster than normal, his blood pressure was below normal, his respiratory rate was high and his body temperature was low.
“The classic signs of shock,” Green said in her papers. Sams “needed to be transferred to a hospital.”
Twice Diza phoned Dr. William G. Douglas, the jail’s on-call physician, at his home. Douglas ordered Sams admitted to the medical unit and scheduled to see a doctor in the morning.
Douglas should have recognized that Sams needed emergency room care, Green alleged in her papers.
“Douglas had a long history of refusing to provide inmates at the jail with necessary and appropriate medical care and was repeatedly disciplined (and eventually terminated) for failing to provide” such care, Green said. “Douglas disliked his position as an on-call doctor because he was paid only $8 per hour for taking calls, which he stated ‘was hardly worth the effort and the responsibility.’ ”
Douglas did not return calls to his home or his wife’s office, nor did his attorney respond to a message.
During the next two hours two deputies and a medical assistant did what they could to make Sams comfortable.
At 4:23 a.m. the deputies discovered Sams was not breathing. An ambulance was summoned while the supervising nurse administered CPR. He was pronounced dead by a paramedic at 4:39.
“Tragic – and wholly avoidable,” Green said.
Source: The Sacramento Bee