Relatives of woman who died in jail cell lose wrongful death suit against Douglas County

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

Relatives of a woman who died in her cell at the Douglas County Jail have lost their long-running federal wrongful death lawsuit against the county and the sheriff.

After a two-week trial, the jury returned its verdict Friday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. According to the judgment in the case, the verdict means that heirs of deceased inmate Rachel Hammers will recover nothing.

Jurors weighed allegations against both the county and the sheriff that their jail staff denied or delayed medical care to Hammers and also had inadequate training, finding in favor of the county and sheriff on all counts, according to the verdict.

Hammers was 32 when she died — unnoticed by her cellmate and not witnessed by jail staff, according to depositions — in her cell at the Douglas County Jail in the middle of the morning on May 12, 2012.

She is the first and only inmate to die there since the jail opened in 1999.

The civil lawsuit had been pending more than four years, filed first in Douglas County District Court in April 2014 and moved to federal court in 2015.

photo by: Court document

This photo pictures the pod inside the Douglas County Correctional Facility where inmate Rachel Hammers died, in an upstairs cell, on May 12, 2012. The photo is among exhibits in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court by Hammers’ father on behalf of her three minor children.

Hammers’ father, Joseph Harvey, a Lawrence oral surgeon, originally sued the Douglas County Commission; Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern; Undersheriff Kenneth Massey; three unnamed individuals; medical doctor Dennis Sale; and the Douglas County Visiting Nurses Association. Harvey’s suit demanded more than $1.35 million for Hammers’ three minor children in reparation for her death.

Sale and the VNA reached confidential settlements with Harvey last year, and claims against them were dismissed.

Over the course of the case, a number of other specific claims dropped out — largely because of a ruling by Judge Carlos Murguia this spring that dismissed some claims and determined others could move forward to trial.

Friday’s jury verdict addressed four total claims: two against the County Commission and the same two against the sheriff as well, according to their verdict form.

Harvey, in his lawsuit, alleged that Hammers died as a result of the defendants’ “systemic disregard” for her medical conditions and accepted correctional medical practices.

“Hammers not only experienced extensive pain and suffering, but she died a horrible and preventable death,” the original suit said.

The county has denied allegations throughout, saying jail staff followed protocol and were not liable for her death.

“The evidence shows that Hammers’ medical condition, even if one were to assume that she died of an alcohol seizure, would not be apparent to a lay person nor even to medical staff,” Overland Park attorney Michael Seck, who represented the county, wrote in the county’s motion for summary judgment.

“Quite simply, no one who came in contact with Hammers during her incarceration had any inkling that there was a serious medical condition that had to be addressed. The mere fact that she died in custody does not infer negligence.”

Hammers suffered from chronic alcoholism and had a history of seizures, high blood pressure and alcohol withdrawal.

Her death certificate said her sudden death was due to a seizure disorder, probably related to alcohol withdrawal, the judge wrote in a recent summary of the case.

The evening before she died, she had gone to jail on a bench warrant for failing to appear on a parole violation charge. After finding Hammers intoxicated that morning and helping with her children, her mother, in agreement with her father, decided to call police, the judge said.

Jail staff and Hammers’ cellmate said she did not appear to be drunk or to have symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that night or the next morning, and Hammers was scheduled to see a nurse the following day.

Hammers and her cellmate had breakfast that day, then returned to their cell to nap. The cellmate woke up and cleaned the cell and left to take a shower, reporting that she’d noticed Hammers snoring and sounding congested as she slept but did not think anything was wrong with her.

After Hammers did not respond to a corrections officer asking via intercom if she wanted to take her free time, the officer entered the cell and found Hammers unresponsive.

Harvey’s attorney, Arthur Benson, of Kansas City, Mo., declined to share any reaction to the verdict.

“We have no comment,” he said when reached Monday.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman declined to comment on the verdict and referred questions to Seck, the county’s attorney. A message to Seck was not immediately returned Monday.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.