Father of woman who died in Douglas County Jail suing for $1.35 million

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Heading into the Douglas County Jail, Rachel Hammers understood that alcoholism put her health at risk.

In particular, Hammers, 32, was afraid that her jail sentence for drunken driving would send her into a fit of seizures induced by alcohol withdrawal, so she sought medical attention, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Kansas City, Kan.

A doctor prescribed medication for Hammers that would lessen the alcohol-withdrawal effects, and her medical records were faxed over to the jail prior to her incarceration, the lawsuit says.

The evening of May 11, 2012, after Hammers was booked into jail she called her family and told them she would be in touch the next day so she could speak with her daughter, the lawsuit says.

The next morning guards found Hammers unresponsive and bloodied in her cell. She was taken by ambulance to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead just under an hour later.

Now, Hammers’ father, Joe Harvey, who is an oral surgeon in Lawrence, is suing Douglas County officials, employees and medical staff under contract at the jail, alleging that his daughter died needlessly and in pain.

Harvey’s lawsuit is seeking $1.35 million from the county to compensate for pain and suffering caused by his daughter’s death. Douglas County officials declined to comment for this article. But through court filings, the county has denied allegations of wrong-doing.

Harvey also declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, saying only: “My family and I have great faith in our legal team.”

An early widow

By her early 30s, Rachel Hammers was a widow and a mother to three daughters and a son. Hammers married Sean Hammers in April 2010, but he died just 19 months later.

Hammers was one of eight children born to Harvey and his wife, Mary Hansen Harvey. She was a graduate of both Perry-Lecompton High School and Kansas University.

The lawsuit acknowledges that Hammers had a history of alcohol abuse and depression, but she had no criminal history prior to 2011, Douglas County District Court records show.

But in late 2011, that would change. Court records show that in 2011, Hammers had two drunken driving offenses, and parole violations related to those offenses which led to her incarceration in the Douglas County Jail on multiple occasions.

Harvey’s lawsuit alleges that jail officials should have known that Harvey’s serious alcohol abuse — she told doctors she often drank a liter of rum per day — put her at risk of serious injury if she didn’t receive the proper medication to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Lawsuit filed

Harvey’s civil suit was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan. in April 2015, but it has gained new vigor in recent weeks as Harvey hired new lead counsel for the case, prominent Kansas City Attorney Arthur Benson.

The lawsuit lists as defendants the Douglas County Commission, Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern, then-Undersheriff Kenneth Massey, then-Undersheriff Steve Hornberger, Dr. Dennis Sale, the Douglas County Visiting Nurses Association, and three anonymous men who are alleged to have been involved in Hammer’s wrongful death.

Her father’s lawsuit argues that the oversights and failures leading to Hammers’ death were so egregious that they constitute a violation of her civil rights under the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and 14th Amendments. These rights generally guarantee due process, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, basic human rights and equal protection under the law.

Although a direct cause of death could not be determined, Hammers’ autopsy report concluded that the best explanation was linked to “seizure activity.” She tested negative for both alcohol and drugs when the autopsy was performed.

The lawsuit states that policies and procedures established and enforced within the jail led staff to overlook Hammers’ medical records, put her welfare in the hands of unqualified employees and allowed for a delay in providing emergency medical care.

In total, the lawsuit claims six points where the defendants are at fault, including:

• Deliberate indifference to serious medical need and failure to provide access to medical personnel for evaluation and treatment.

• Failure to train/ Inadequate training.

• Failure to supervise/ Inadequate supervision.

• Wrongful death.

• Negligence.

• Breach of duty to third party beneficiary.

Backstory and timeline

The following is a brief timeline of Hammers’ last months, as outlined in the lawsuit and in Douglas County District Court records:

In October 2011, Hammers was arrested for her second drunken driving offense. Her first offense was five months earlier.

In February 2012, Hammers pleaded guilty to both drunken driving charges, and the next month she was sentenced to serve four days in jail. That sentence was to be followed by a year of parole in lieu of six months of incarceration.

Hammers’ four-day jail sentence was scheduled to begin on March 21, 2012, the lawsuit says. Weary of the impending symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as she served her sentence, she visited a doctor and received a drug prescription to alleviate any potential issues.

The doctor also forwarded Hammers’ medical history and prescribed drug regimen to jail staff, the lawsuit says.

As inmates are booked into the Douglas County Jail they go through a health screening process, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kristen Dymacek wrote in an email.

“They are asked a series of medical and mental health questions as well as visually observed by corrections officers or deputies,” she said in response to questions from the Journal-World.

During the jail’s screening process, the booking officer indicated that Hammers did not have a health risk, the lawsuit says.

Over the next four days in jail, Hammers experienced moderate and eventually severe withdrawal. On the third day she was sweating heavily and was delusional and hallucinating.

While in jail, inmates experiencing medical issues can alert jail staff, Dymacek said. The staff will then decide what steps to take.

“Corrections officers and deputies are not trained to give medical examinations. They are trained in first aid and CPR,” she said. “Any inmate can alert (jail) staff of a medical need at any point and the appropriate measures are taken to take care of their medical needs.”

Despite her symptoms and medical history, the lawsuit says, the nursing staff neither alerted a doctor nor monitored Hammers more closely; nor did staff adhere to her drug treatment prescribed for alcohol withdrawal.

Hammers was released from jail on March 27, 2012, after serving her four-day sentence. However, she violated the terms of her parole and two warrants were issued for her arrest the next month.

On April 19, 2012, Hammers checked herself into Lawrence Memorial Hospital for alcohol intoxication, depression and suicidal thoughts, once more reporting a history of seizures due to alcohol withdrawal.

Three days later, Hammers was booked back into jail. Once again the booking officer indicated she did not have a health risk. She was released from the facility eight days later.

Once again, Hammers failed to meet the terms of her parole and another arrest warrant was issued. She was booked into jail for the last time on May 11, 2012.

During her third and final medical screening Hammers reported daily alcohol use, hypertension and depression. Again she was determined to have no health risk.

That night Hammers spoke with her family from the jail and said she would be calling the next morning to speak with her daughter. However, the call was never made.

On Saturday, May 12, 2012, at 9:50 a.m., jail staff discovered Hammers in her cell, unresponsive and bloodied, the lawsuit says. “She had no pulse and she wasn’t breathing.”

Jail staff did not perform CPR on Hammers and insisted on waiting for nursing staff to arrive on the scene, the lawsuit says.

In addition, responding nurses did not immediately bring a defibrillator with them to try and resuscitate Hammers. More than five minutes passed before the device was brought to the cell “which diminished the likelihood that she could be successfully resuscitated,” the lawsuit says.

Hammers was taken by ambulance to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 10:46 a.m.

More allegations

Many different factors led to Hammers’ death, the lawsuit says, and each factor was exacerbated by failures of all the defendants, individually and collectively, to fulfill their responsibilities.

Inadequate jail policies and procedures regarding both the routine and emergency medical care of inmates “comprise the moving force behind Hammers’ death,” the lawsuit says.

Those policies and procedures were created and enforced by Douglas County officials, employees and medical staff under contract, the lawsuit says.

Several other elements — all stemming from the jail’s policies and procedures — are listed in the lawsuit as factors contributing to Hammers’ death:

• Hammers’ medical history, which was readily available to jail and medical staff, was overlooked and her pre-existing and well-documented conditions were ignored.

• Improperly trained and unqualified jail staff members were entrusted to conduct medical screenings of inmates during the booking process and assess each inmate’s overall health risk.

• Improperly trained and unqualified jail and nursing staff were responsible for determining the severity of each inmate’s medical issues before contacting qualified medical staff.

• Medical staff under contract at the jail were improperly staffed during night and weekend hours.

Each of the factors constitutes a “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of Hammers and the entire jail population, the lawsuit says. In addition, the collective “actions and omissions” of the defendants ultimately show a “conscious disregard” of civil rights.

Attorneys for Douglas County officials, employees and contracted medical staff all declined to comment on the pending litigation or the specific allegations.

Currently the Douglas County Jail houses 186 inmates and employs 94 staff members “which includes corrections officers, deputies, IT, kitchen staff, maintenance, lobby officers, reentry staff, etc,” Dymacek said.

As a part of an ongoing conversation, the county is considering moving ahead with a $30 million jail expansion, which would add 120 beds to the facility.

The jail, at 3601 North 1360 Road, opened in 1999 and Hammers is the only inmate to have died in the facility, Dymacek said.

Douglas County’s contract with the Visiting Nurses Association and Dr. Sale ended Thursday, said Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky. A contract for the jail’s new medical services provider, Advanced Correctional Healthcare was approved by the Douglas County Commission on June 13, and officially began on Friday.

A jury trial for the lawsuit is scheduled to begin on Oct. 23, 2017, in Kansas City.