A San Diego Superior Court jury has awarded more than $12 million to a North County man who suffered irreparable brain damage after sheriff’s deputies arrested him on suspicion of public drunkenness, interrupting paramedics who were treating him.
It is one of the largest jury awards in recent history involving San Diego County, which has seen a growing number of lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department filed by injured jail inmates and family members of inmates who died in custody.
The jury award, decided late Friday, will next be considered by the county Board of Supervisors.
David Collins’ attorneys say he will never be able to hold a job or live independently as a result of permanent damage he sustained in 2016, when deputies pulled him away from paramedics who responded to a 911 medical call and instead took him to jail.
“This was a hard-won fight for us,” said attorney Elizabeth Teixeira, who litigated the case for Collins and his family. “The county spent the entire case refusing to take any responsibility for their actions that cost our client his future.”
The Sheriff’s Department issued a statement saying it disagreed with the jury verdict and that Collins’ behavior prior to his arrest contributed to his illness. The statement said Collins had spent two to three weeks drinking beer, playing video games and “not even stopping to attend to his basic human needs.”
“It is clear to see that Mr. Collins failure to take care of himself is what caused his harm in the first place, and the jury was wrong to not identify it as a substantial factor in this case,” Lt. Justin White wrote in the statement. “If Mr. Collins had tended to his own needs, first responders would not have been called, and he would not have ended up needing to go to the hospital for treatment.”
White also said that other testimony during the trial contradicted the plaintiff’s assertion that deputies stopped the paramedics’ medical evaluation of Collins.
A spokesman for San Diego County also said the jury award was misguided.
“The County believes the jury’s verdict was unwarranted and is considering its options regarding appeal,” spokesman Michael Workman wrote in an email.
Collins, a 30-year-old welder from Carlsbad, was suffering from a serious sodium deficiency that caused him to become disoriented and slur his speech, according to the lawsuit.
He left home on the night of Nov. 18, 2016 after experiencing repeated hallucinations. A pedestrian saw Collins stumble and fall to the ground and called 911.
Paramedics responded, but before they could complete their evaluation, sheriff’s deputies arrived, determined the man was under the influence of alcohol, and booked him into the Vista jail, according to trial testimony.
Collins fell inside the jail and suffered a “brain bleed,” further exacerbating his condition, court records said. Hours passed before he received medical attention, but by then the amount of sodium in his blood had declined to a near-fatal level, documents show.
The lawsuit accused the deputies of false arrest, negligence, excessive force and deliberate indifference, among other allegations.
“Their actions destroyed David’s life as he knew it and violated his rights as a citizen of the United States and state of California,” Collins’ lawyers wrote in a trial brief about the deputies and medical staff. “Even more disturbing is the county’s attempt to conceal their actions in this case.”
The lawsuit accused sheriff’s deputies of lying in reports they wrote that said Collins smelled strongly of alcohol and was behaving in a loud and boisterous manner and that the consensus among paramedics was that Collins was under the influence of alcohol.
The plaintiff’s court filing said paramedics disputed that account.
The lawsuit also accused the Sheriff’s Department of destroying a jail video showing that Collins had fallen onto the concrete floor, causing the bleeding that led to permanent brain damage.
“The supervisor of the shift watched that video which depicted him falling and decided not to save it,” Teixeira wrote in a court filing.
According to the lawsuit, Collins continued to have trouble speaking and walking several hours after his arrest. A doctor who was called to assess him “looked at him only through the cell glass,” court documents show.
It wasn’t until about 1 p.m. the following day — about 13 hours after Collins had been booked and fallen — that a nurse summoned paramedics. He was transported to Palomar Medical Center, where a doctor administered a medication that elevated the sodium in Collins’ blood too quickly, causing further brain damage, the lawsuit says.
Collins will need medical supervision for the rest of his life. He is able to walk and speak, but he struggles to perform routine tasks, his lawyers said; for example, it can take 15 minutes for him to button his shirt.
“He continues to work daily with his father to try and improve his speech, which is still very difficult to understand,” his lawyer wrote. “He tries to keep up his strength and improve his motor skills and balance. Despite his daily attempts to focus on these areas, he still struggles with fine motor skills.”
The issue of injuries and deaths in San Diego County’s seven jails has plagued the Sheriff’s Department. Since 2009, when Bill Gore was appointed sheriff, the department has been sued more than 40 times by inmates and their families.
The $12.6 million verdict pushes the total amount of settlements and damage awards past $20 million in the past 10 years. In the prior decade, the county paid $1.9 million to resolve such claims.
Because the county is self-insured, the money comes from taxpayers.
In addition to the county, the Collins family sued University of California San Diego, American Medical Response, the city of Encinitas, Palomar Health and several doctors, nurses and deputies. The claims against UCSD and American Medical Response were dismissed, and some plaintiffs reached private settlements in advance of the jury verdict, Teixeira said.
It was not immediately clear how the $12.6 million jury award will be divided among the remaining defendants.
Davis and McDonald write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.