Summit County to pay out nearly $4 million in settlements over jail inmate death, assault

Outside a holding cell at the Summit County Jail, where a man died of a heart attack while in alcohol withdrawal. The county government agreed to pay his family $3.5 million in the second settlement tied to jail misconduct allegations in four months.
Hugh Carey / |

Summit County has reached a preliminary $3.5 million settlement with the family of a man who died of alcohol withdrawal while in jail in 2013, suffering a heart attack after three days of symptoms with no medical care.

The settlement is the second in four months reached by the county government over allegations of mismanagement at the Summit County Jail. The county has also agreed to pay James Durkee $200,000 over claims that jail staff did not separate him from an inmate who had threatened him and failed to provide adequate care after the inmate assaulted him.

“This speaks to serious problems in the Summit County Jail,” said David Lane, the Denver attorney who handled both cases. “How many little counties in Colorado are paying out close to 4 million dollars in settlements on cases involving abusing inmates?”

A federal civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of Zackary Moffitt’s family alleges that jail staff “watched as Mr. Moffitt became increasingly delirious, yet did nothing to provide Moffitt with the medical attention he so desperately needed (before he died).”

After three days of vomiting, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, Moffitt had a heart attack in a jail holding cell on July 9, 2013. He was placed on life support and died four days later, on July 13.

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The suit alleges that he would have survived if he had been given medical attention. Jail staff called an on-call doctor but he was on vacation at the time, according to court documents.

“Well how about you call another doctor?” Lane said. “How about you take him to a hospital? You can’t just let this guy die because the contracted doctor is on vacation, for crying out loud.”

Julie Sutor, a county spokeswoman, said the county’s insurance provider decided the initial settlement amounts as a “business and financial decision based on anticipation of future legal costs.” The Moffitt deal isn’t final yet but will likely be approved by a probate court judge in December.

Because insurance covered the settlements, it’s unclear how they will impact the county financially. But Lane said that regardless of how it affects the bottom line, citizens should be alarmed.

“This is costing taxpayers millions of dollars because the jail is mismanaged. That should be a huge concern,” he said, adding that a jury would’ve likely awarded Moffitt’s family a much larger sum had the case gone to trial.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who was a deputy for Sheriff John Minor at the time of the incidents but wasn’t involved in the jail, confirmed the settlements. He said he has made improvements at the jail during his tenure, including a new camera system and an in-house health care provider.

“In my role as sheriff I have dedicated myself to increasing awareness to mental health issues and improving mental health services to the general public and those who enter the criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.

Moffitt, a severe alcoholic, was checked into St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco on July 6, 2013, with a blood alcohol content of 0.394. While being treated for alcohol poisoning, he removed his IV and left the hospital but was quickly arrested by a sheriff’s deputy for violating a restraining order barring him from drinking.

The deputy violated jail policy by accepting him without the written medical evaluation required for arrestees with a BAC higher than .30, according to court documents. He no longer works for the sheriff’s office.

Soon after being booked, Moffitt began vomiting a “neon, lime-green substance” and said he was starting to see things out of the corners of his eyes.

Former jail commander Erik Bourgerie said in a deposition that Moffitt wasn’t taken to the hospital because his symptoms weren’t deemed serious enough and because doing so would have brought the jail below minimum staffing levels, according to court documents.

Bourgerie left the sheriff’s office earlier this month to take a job as director of Colorado Peace Officers Standards and Training, the state agency that regulates law enforcement training and certification. During his tenure at the jail, he oversaw the camera project and brought in the new health care provider.

“Moffitt was showing mild to moderate symptoms,” Bourgerie said in his deposition. “And if I have a question, like him seeing things out of the corners of his eyes, then I thought it would be helpful to get that guidance (from the doctor with a phone call). However, being that guidance wasn’t available, with the mild to moderate symptoms, it didn’t rise to going to an emergency room.”

That evening, Moffitt reported that he was having “some type of attack, such as a stroke, heart attack or panic attack,” but started feeling better after eating. His vital signs were elevated but normal, and he was returned to general population.

His condition soon deteriorated. By 1 a.m. on July 9, he became delusional and reported hearing voices telling him to kill himself. Other detainees reported that Moffitt was hallucinating and “believed that the (jail) staff and hospital staff were fighting and spilling human organs on the floor,” according to court documents.

Later that morning, Moffitt was sweating profusely, had a “crazy look in his eye” and became combative with jail staff. When Moffitt lost consciousness, jail staff called for medical assistance and performed CPR, but to no avail.

Senior United States District Judge Wiley Daniel wrote in a Sept. 28 order that “the need for a medical evaluation was apparent as early as July 7, 2013,” days before Moffitt’s heart attack.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry into Moffitt’s death in 2013. On the basis of the agency’s report, District Attorney Bruce Brown declined to press charges against jail staff.

No charges were filed against staff involved in Durkee’s case, either. His federal lawsuit alleges that he was “twice the victim of Summit County jailers,” who first failed to protect him from another inmate and then failed to provide him with access to medical care for his injuries.

On Dec. 28, 2012, the suit alleges that staff unshackled an inmate known to have made threats to Durkee while he was standing nearby.

“Predictably, (the inmate) made a beeline for Mr. Durkee and brutally assaulted him, punching him over and over in the head and inflicting serious bodily injury,” the suit alleges, adding that jailers failed to provide Durkee with adequate medical care over the next several weeks.

“Durkee never should’ve been allowed near the guy that had threatened him,” Lane said. “They admitted that they were on notice that this guy threatened Durkee. … it was deliberate indifference that resulted in him having a fractured face bone.”

The case ended in a hung jury this July and was settled out of court soon after. The county agreed to pay Durkee $200,000.

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