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Former inmate's wife accuses jail of improper medical care in lawsuit

By Joe Beck

A multi-million dollar lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court accuses authorities at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center of gross, willful and wanton negligence in responding to the near fatal seizures of an inmate.

The suit, filed by Suzanne Boren, wife of Rockie Harold Watts, also argues that jail officials violated his civil rights under the U.S. and Virginia constitutions. She is seeking punitive damages totaling $37.2 million and $3 million in compensatory damages.

Defendants listed in the case include jail superintendent Bruce R. Conover and seven members of the jail staff. County and jail officials said Tuesday they would not comment on the case while it is pending.

Frederick County Administrator John R. Riley Jr., who is also chairman of the Jail Authority Board, said Tuesday that he had not seen the suit until he was served with papers that afternoon.

"It was my first knowledge that any of this occurred," Riley said. "That's about all I can comment on."

Boren's complaint, submitted by five attorneys from Richmond, states that Watts was declared incompetent in Winchester City Circuit Court after the incident.

The complaint argues several pages later that Watts's disabling affliction, hypoxic encephalopathy, "was caused by severe metabolic acidosis that had built up from the multiple, untreated seizures he had experienced in the preceding hours. Watts's brain was deprived of adequate oxygen throughout this ordeal and as a result, he has suffered, and will forever suffer from the effects hypoxic encephalopathy.

"Watts is now completely dependent upon others for all his activities of daily living," the complaint continues, "and he is unable to eat, stand, walk or toilet himself, among other deficits, and he now requires 24-hour care for the rest of his life."

Watts was taken by ambulance to the Winchester Medical Center at 12:09 a.m. on May 6, according to the complaint. It took emergency measures, including the use of a defibrillator to revive his heart after it stopped beating, to save his life after he arrived at the hospital, the complaint states.

The complaint states that Winchester police officers arrested Watts earlier in the night and charged him with profane swearing and public intoxication. Watts suffered his first seizure at about 9:50 p.m. in the jail, the complaint states. Jailers checked his vital signs but provided no other medical care for the inmate, according to the complaint.

Watts suffered three other seizures before jail staff called for an EMS crew to provide emergency medical care at 11:34 p.m., the complaint states.

"During the entire time Watts was in defendants' care, control and custody on May 5, the only health care services rendered ... consisted of observing Watts and perhaps taking his vitals," the complaint states.

Riley said the county probably will find a defense attorney through its insurance carrier, Virginia Risk Management in Richmond.

"That's normally what happens," he said.

The jail's annual report for fiscal year 2012 states that concerns about individual health care or jail staff medical practices constituted about 22 percent of 214 inmate grievances filed. Another 13 percent dealt with dietary, clothing, personal property and "comfort matters," according to the report.

The report also states that inmates admitted with chronic health problems increased by 9 percent in fiscal year 2012. The jail counted 539 inmates with serious chronic health conditions, and 598 were admitted with a mental illness, the report states.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


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