An Albuquerque attorney has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in connection to the 2013 death of a Navajo man in the Montezuma County jail.
In a 40-page complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court in Denver, Russell Sacks claimed that a lack of proper health care contributed to the death of Harrison M. Begay, 38, on Oct. 27, 2013.
“The death of Mr. Begay is an example of the systematic problem of defendants’ failure to provide adequate medical attention to a Navajo citizen who was a known alcoholic suffering from an acute episode,” Sacks wrote in the complaint.
The lawsuit named Southwest Memorial Hospital, Montezuma County commissioners, former Sheriff Dennis Spruell, five detention officers, a sheriff’s office nurse and an emergency room physician as defendants. It requests a jury trial and more than $75,000 in damages.
Sacks argues that the defendants intentionally denied Begay access to adequate treatment. Begay died about 26 hours after he was jailed.
“The family decided to file the lawsuit, because they don’t want Mr. Begay to die in vain,” Sacks told The Journal via telephone.
Last year, the Colorado Civil Rights Division reported that Southwest had met all demands, including cultural sensitivity training, stemming from a 2012 lawsuit that accused the hospital of turning away a Ute Mountain Ute woman after she was raped in 2010. The settlement required that Southwest submit annual reports to the Colorado Civil Rights Division.
In the last half of 2013, Begay and two other inmates died in the jail. A 47-year-old intoxicated woman died in her holding cell last month.
Defendants decline comment
In November 2013, Begay’s family reported receiving a letter from Jessie Neitzer, Southwest’s compliance and risk management director, stating that the hospital didn’t find a correlation between Begay’s death and the care he received.
Southwest Memorial spokeswoman Haley Leonard declined to comment this week, citing the pending litigation.
Spruell did not return The Journal’s phone calls this week. In April 2014, after receiving notice of a lawsuit, he told county commissioners, “I guess they think lying is OK.”
County attorney John Baxter also did not return a telephone call this week.
Current Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin declined to comment but said two of the five jailors listed as defendants aren’t employed by the sheriff’s office.
Begay’s last days
According to the lawsuit, Southwest emergency room physician Todd Fowler treated Begay two days before his death with a “rally pack” of vitamins after police brought him in with a blood alcohol level of .376. Despite being “neurologically unresponsive,” Begay was discharged and given a ride to a local shelter, which had no medical personnel on staff, about 8:15 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2013.
Begay reportedly checked out of the shelter just before 11 p.m. that night. About two hours later, police found him lying in a Walmart bathroom. He was arrested and charged with trespassing and public intoxication.
Sacks claims that Fowler and other personnel treated him for about 10 minutes in a patrol car at the hospital, and Fowler again cleared him, though he was vomiting and experiencing shortness of breath. Sacks contends Begay was taken to the jail at 1:22 a.m., with discharge instructions to seek follow-up care in two to three days.
Family witnessed booking
Sacks states that Begay’s family members observed him drooling and appearing unconscious before he was jailed on Oct. 26, 2013, and that Begay’s sister demanded that he be readmitted to the hospital.
Begay was found dead in a cell at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 27, and a sheriff’s office nurse reported that he had blood inside and around his nose and a black eye.
In a November 2013 report, Deputy John Hancock, not named as a defendant, wrote that an officer last saw Begay alive about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 26. Former Montezuma County Coroner Charlie Rosenbaugh determined that Begay died after midnight, Oct. 27.