Second defendant offers to settle in wrongful death lawsuit regarding inmate who died in Douglas County Jail

Douglas County Jail

A second defendant has settled in the ongoing, civil lawsuit surrounding the death of Rachel Hammers inside the Douglas County Jail.

The cause of Hammers’ death remains in dispute. Her father, Joe Harvey, filed the wrongful death lawsuit in federal court in April 2015.

In late 2016, one of the defendants, the Douglas County Visiting Nurses Association, who provided medical services to the jail until 2016, offered Harvey a confidential settlement.

On Feb. 27, another defendant in the case, Dr. Dennis Sale, who also worked at the jail in tandem with the VNA, filed a motion in court regarding yet another confidential settlement offer.

Both settlement offers were approved on Thursday and all claims against both the VNA and Sale were dismissed as a part of the arrangement.

The lawsuit will continue on, however, for the remaining defendants: the Douglas County Commission, Sheriff Ken McGovern, then-Undersheriff Kenneth Massey, then-Undersheriff Steve Hornberger and three anonymous men who were reported involved in Hammers’ death.

Harvey is an oral surgeon in Lawrence. His lawsuit is seeking $1.35 million from the county, claiming his daughter’s death was needless, painful and preventable.

Previously Harvey has declined to comment on the lawsuit, though on Friday he offered a brief statement regarding a court order sealing certain records in the case.

“From the beginning we implemented a protective order to ensure the security of Rachel’s children in matters regarding the lawsuit,” he said. “At this time, since our suit against Douglas County remains unresolved, I have no further comment.”

Aside from his short statement, Harvey said he could only reiterate what he said in court during Thursday’s settlement hearing.

In short, Harvey said considering the fact that his daughter cannot be returned to him or her children he is “satisfied with the settlement with the VNA and Sale.” He also noted his satisfaction in his team’s “pursuit of the truth.”

Harvey would not offer additional comments on the case, other than praising the “integrity and dedication” of his attorneys.

Douglas County officials have declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, though in court filings they deny Harvey’s claims.

In 2016, Harvey’s legal team — which includes Arthur Benson, a prominent Kansas City attorney — brought on several high-profile experts who argued that a simple visit from a nurse or doctor could have prevented Hammers’ death. Their findings differ sharply from those made by the defendants’ witnesses.

Since Harvey’s lawsuit was filed, the coroner who performed Hammers’ autopsy, Erik Mitchell, has changed his opinion on the cause of her death. Initially he wrote her death was likely related to severe alcoholism.

Hammers often drank a liter of rum each day, according to filings in Harvey’s lawsuit. Her significant addiction put her at risk of serious injury within the jail if her withdrawal symptoms were not properly treated with medication.

Because she had recently been booked into the facility on multiple occasions, jail and medical staff should have known about Hammers’ medical risks and should have been able to prevent her death, the lawsuit says.

Officially, Mitchell diagnosed Hammers’ death as sudden death due to a “seizure disorder probably related to acute ethanol withdrawal.” The disorder was related to “chronic ethanolism,” he said.

In this AP photo from Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, former New York City chief medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden speaks during a news conference to share preliminary results of a second autopsy done on Michael Brown in St. Louis County, Mo. Baden is one of several high-profile medical experts offering his opinion in a lawsuit surrounding the 2012 death of 32-year-old Rachel Hammers in the Douglas County Jail.

Four years later, though, Mitchell changed his report, writing that alcohol withdrawal likely did not contribute to her death, a position Harvey’s medical experts dispute.

“No one questioned (Hammers) or appeared to be concerned about the consequences of suddenly stopping her drinking a quart of rum per day,” wrote Dr. Michael Baden — on behalf of the plaintiff — in a report filed in federal court. “There were no such outward signs or symptoms of alcohol withdrawal recorded because no nurse or doctor spoke with Mrs. Hammers or examined her.”

In all, Harvey’s lawsuit claims the defendants are at fault on six points, including lack of supervision and failures in training.

Court filings indicate the defendants will depose Baden and another medical witness in the coming months as the lawsuit moves forward.

The Douglas County Jail can house 186 inmates, and it employs 94 staff members. The county is considering moving forward with a $30 million jail expansion, which would add 120 beds to the facility.

Hammers is the only inmate who has died in the Douglas County Jail, which opened in 1999.

The jail’s contract with Sale and the VNA ended on July 1. Advanced Correctional Healthcare has since taken over providing the facility’s medical services.

Harvey’s lawsuit is now scheduled to begin in December 2017.