Today Evans Moore, LLC filed a Notice of Intent to File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit on behalf of the Estate of Joyce Curnell, a 50-year-old African American female of Edisto Island, South Carolina who was found dead at the Charleston County Detention Center on July 22, 2015. Ms. Curnell is one of at least six (6) African American women found “unresponsive” while in police custody during the month of July, 2015 in the United States.
According to the Autopsy Report, Ms. Curnell died as a result of complications of gastroenteritis – most commonly referred to as the stomach flu. In the affidavit of physician Maria Gibson filed simultaneously with the Notice of Intent, Dr. Gibson states, “Simply put, Ms. Curnell died because she was deprived of water. She was too sick to tolerate the dehydration as a result of acute gastroenteritis. Had Ms. Curnell been timely evaluated by a medical professional and properly treated for her gastroenteritis and dehydration, her deterioration and ultimate death would have, more likely than not based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty, been prevented.”
The pleadings allege that Ms. Curnell arrived via ambulance to the emergency room at Roper St. Francis Hospital on July 21, 2015 with complaints of nausea and vomiting. While at Roper St. Francis Hospital, Ms. Curnell was diagnosed with gastroenteritis. The pleadings further allege that Ms. Curnell also suffered from sickle cell traits, a common medical illness that causes an abnormal hemoglobin level in the red blood cells. While most people with sickle cell traits do not experience any symptoms or complications, they are known to be more vulnerable to dehydration. The Plaintiff alleges the medical staff at Roper St. Francis Hospital recognized that she was more susceptible to dehydration and properly provided Mrs. Curnell with IV hydration and prescribed her to Zofran to prevent the nausea and vomiting.
During the course of her two-hour hospitalization, it was determined Ms. Curnell had an outstanding bench warrant in connection with a 2011 misdemeanor shoplifting charge. Immediately thereafter, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office responded while Ms. Curnell was still a patient at Roper St. Francis Hospital and placed her under arrest. She was transported directly from the Roper St. Francis Hospital emergency room to the Charleston County Detention Center for booking at 2:30 p.m.
The pleadings allege that Carolina Center for Occupational Health, the private medical group that has a contract with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office to provide all medical care to detainees at the Charleston County Detention Center, failed to provide Ms. Curnell with timely and proper access to medical treatment. For example, the pleadings allege Ms. Curnell did not have access to the medications as prescribed by medical staff at Roper St. Francis Hospital; did not receive a proper medical examination; and that the medical staff ignored multiple requests by detention center staff to examine Ms. Curnell and provide her with medical treatment. During the twenty-seven (27) hours that Ms. Curnell was detained at the Charleston County Detention Center, multiple witnesses – including detention center staff – reported to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division that she was continuously vomiting and reported to be “too weak” to make it to the bathroom or submit a “sick call request.” Despite Ms. Curnell’s physical appearance as described by detention center staff and other inmates, there are no records supporting that Ms. Curnell was properly monitored or examined by staff, and there are no records or statements to support that she was offered oral hydration or IV hydration to prevent dehydration.
According to a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office incident report, Ms. Curnell was last observed by detention center staff on 2:12 p.m. and was found “unresponsive” at 5:00 p.m.
Attorney James B. Moore III, one of the attorneys representing the Estate of Joyce Curnell stated, “It is incomprehensible that in the year 2015, in the United States of America, we have members of our community suffering and dying from thirst and dehydration. Joyce’s death was not a result of mere negligence, but a conscious, deliberate failure to provide her with the most basic of medical care. Providing access to reasonable medical care to those under police custody is a necessity, not a privilege. It is a Constitutional right. We are committed to seeking justice for Joyce and for her family.”
Attorney Scott C. Evans added: “This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life. She needed fluids and the attention of a doctor. Not only has nobody been prosecuted in connection with Joyce’s death, it does not appear that any employee has even been reprimanded.”
South Carolina law requires that any party seeking to file a lawsuit alleging medical negligence must first file a “Notice of Intent to File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit” with the Court in which the case will be heard. The Notice of Intent and supporting expert affidavit is filed in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas.
On June 25, 2015, the attorneys of Evans Moore, Scott Evans and James “Boo” Moore, were interviewed for an upcoming documentary produced by non-profit Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc., which highlights the crisis facing the mentally ill in South Carolina’s state prison system.
Evans Moore were approached for this interview due to their successful track record of litigating civil cases on behalf of individuals and their families who have needlessly suffered from neglect, abuse, and mistreatment within the South Carolina Department of Corrections. During this interview, Scott and James engage in candid discussions regarding the effects of the deficit of mental health services within our State’s prison system on the lives of inmates, their families, and its impact on the citizens of our great state.
The documentary, slated for release in fall 2016, will also bring light to Circuit Judge Michael Baxley’s recent ruling in the class action lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections, T.R., P.R., K.W., et al. v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, et al.
The class action suit, filed in June 2005 by Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. on behalf of inmates with serious mental health needs, alleges inadequate mental health treatment for prisoners held statewide by the S.C. Department of Corrections. The lawsuit did not seek financial damages; rather, it charged the court with requiring the department to design and maintain a program that provides adequate treatment of inmates with mental illness.
In his Order dated January 8, 2014, Judge Baxley opined that this case was the “most troubling” of the 70,000 cases to come before him in the past 14 years. “The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness. As a society, and as citizen jurors and judges make decisions that send people to prison, we have the reasonable expectation that those in prison – even though it is prison – will have their basic health needs met by the state that imprisons them. And this includes mental health. The evidence in this case has shown that expectation to be misplaced in many instances,” Baxley wrote.
South Carolina houses some 23,000 inmates, with more than 3,000 inmates with serious mental illness diagnoses (SCDC data as of June 30, 2011).
The Judge noted that providing mental health services to inmates has significance beyond the prison walls. “What happens at the Department of Corrections impacts all of us, whether it is from the discharge of untreated seriously mentally ill individuals from prison into the general population, or tremendously increased costs for treatment and care that might have been prevented, or the needless increase in human suffering when use of force replaces medical care. The decisions of our Courts reflect the values of our society. To that end, our state can no longer tolerate a mental health system at the South Carolina Department of Corrections that has broken down due to lack of finances and focus,” he wrote.
The Judge’s order requires the corrections department to remedy constitutional violations by submitting a remedial plan within six months to include: development of screening and mental health treatment programs; a plan to employ sufficient mental health professionals; a plan to maintain treatment records and administer psychotropic medication with appropriate supervision and periodic evaluation; and a program to identify, treat, and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
For more information on cases handled by Evans Moore, the Protection and Advocacy Class Action, and a copy of the Order, please visit http://www.mentalhealth4inmates.org.
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