Judge clears way for trial in jail lawsuit

By Joe Beck

An opinion by U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski has cleared the way for part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of an inmate against the Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center to proceed to a trial in January.

Urbanski ruled in his decision that the jail in Winchester is not an arm or agency of the state nor can it be considered a municipal corporation. As a result, Urbanski said, the jail cannot claim “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits such as the one filed on behalf of former inmate Rockie Harold Watts.

The suit, filed by guardian Suzanne Boren on behalf of Watts, accuses jail staff and jail administrators of gross negligence and indifference to the medical needs of Watts after he was arrested and incarcerated on May 5, 2011 on charges of public drunkenness and swearing.

While in custody, Watts suffered seizures over a period of several hours late on the night of May 5, 2011, according to court documents. The last seizure at the jail came at 11:34 p.m. with all of the nurses and jail officers named as defendants present, according to court records.

“No medical care was rendered, other than to check Watts’ vitals,” Urbanski wrote. “Finally, at 11:34 p.m., emergency medical services were summoned.”

Urbanski wrote that Watts suffered one more seizure after being taken to Winchester Medical Center and suffered brain damage as a result of his earlier seizures going untreated at the jail.

“At the time of his arrest, Watts was fully independent, able to manage his affairs and able to care for himself in all respects,” Urbanski said. ” Now, Watts is completely dependent upon others for all his activities of daily living and is unable to eat, stand, walk or go to the bathroom himself.”

Mark Dix, the lawyer representing Boren and Watts, hailed Urbanski’s decision, although the judge also dismissed several parts of the suit.

“We believe the court got the law correct, and we’re pleased with that part of the court’s ruling,” Dix said.

Rosalie Pemberton Fessier, a lawyer from Staunton representing the jail, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Dix said Urbanski’s decision does not constitute a finding against the jail or for the defendants on the overall legal merits of the claims of negligence.

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