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Sacramento County pays $515,000 to settle suit over inmate’s jail death

“Mark Scott died a horrible death,” said civil rights attorney Stewart Katz (pictured), who represented Scott’s family. “This is one of the worst instances of deliberate indifference I’ve ever seen.”
“Mark Scott died a horrible death,” said civil rights attorney Stewart Katz (pictured), who represented Scott’s family. “This is one of the worst instances of deliberate indifference I’ve ever seen.” jvillegas@sacbee.com

Blood was everywhere when homicide Detective Jeffrey Wallace stepped into cell 303 on the fifth floor in the east tower of Sacramento’s downtown jail on a winter night in 2012.

Wallace had been called there after the death of inmate Mark Anthony Scott, whose lifeless body was lying face up on the floor just outside the cell.

“There is wet and dried blood in both nostrils and dried blood on and around his lips,” the detective wrote in his report. “Blood from his nostrils is dripping downward to the bottom portion of his head onto the ground.”

It was against this backdrop that four deputies later swore under oath they had no idea he was spitting up blood for hours before he died.

“Mark Scott died a horrible death,” said civil rights attorney Stewart Katz, who represented Scott’s family. “This is one of the worst instances of deliberate indifference I’ve ever seen.”

As a result, Sacramento County taxpayers will foot the $515,000 paid to Scott’s family to resolve a wrongful-death lawsuit in U.S. District Court, a case that Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said could have been tough to defend in front of a jury. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2013, was dismissed March 13 and the half-million-dollar settlement was made public earlier this month. One jail employee was disciplined.

Evidence described in court documents of the fatal incident is rife with contradictions.

“He started vomiting shortly after breakfast,” Katz said after the case was filed. “He and his cellmate repeatedly begged the guards for help. It was made very clear to them what was going on, but they ignored numerous and obvious signs of Mark’s severe physical distress.

“The unchecked vomiting eventually tore a hole in his esophagus and he essentially bled to death through his mouth,” Katz said.

Yet, one of the day-shift deputies, James Tidwell, testified it wasn’t until midafternoon that Scott told him he was sick and had vomited, but did not mention blood.

Tidwell contacted Caryl Skerritt, a registered nurse at the jail, who told him to tell Scott to stay hydrated and to fill out a request to be seen by medical staff. Tidwell did not mention blood.

A peer-review committee later found Skerritt had failed to follow guidelines for the treatment of inmates. The policy then required nurses to have inmates who had vomited transferred to the medical unit for a face-to-face assessment, or to go to the inmate’s floor for an evaluation. A letter of reprimand was placed in Skerritt’s personnel file, and she was retrained.

Katz declined to comment after the settlement. Scott’s family, through Katz, also declined comment.

Sheriff Jones said through a spokeswoman: “The settlement – as well as the underlying lawsuit – is unfortunate on many levels. In the final analysis, however, there were areas where a jury could potentially be critical of our medical response, which was the main catalyst to seek settlement.”

A written agreement says: “This settlement shall not be construed, or in any way used, as an admission of fault on behalf of” the county, Jones or members of his department.

Scott, who was 48 when he died on Jan. 6, 2012, had been in jail for 37 days. He had been living in Napa and was picked up on outstanding warrants related to multiple charges. He had arrests and convictions in Sacramento County that included a weapons violation, theft, drunken driving and welfare fraud.

Other inmates later testified that, despite his short stay, Scott had alienated some deputies, especially Tidwell, with constant complaints about living conditions and requests for medical attention.

In a court declaration about the incident, Scott’s cellmate, Richard Vega, swore that the first time he used the intercom to the unit’s control room, he told a deputy, “My cellie over here is sick and throwing up blood.”

Vega said he and Scott hit the intercom button “at least 10 times” and that “the deputies’ response was basically the same: ‘We’re waiting on medical,’ and that medical had said for Mark to lie down and drink plenty of fluids.”

Vega recalled he later flagged down a deputy and told him Scott was spitting up blood “and showed him that there was blood in the toilet and also some tissue that Mark had used to wipe his mouth.”

Lovie James, an inmate on the same pod, said in his court declaration: “I spoke to Tidwell face-to-face during a cell check. I told Tidwell absolutely clear as day that Scott needed help and that he had been coughing or vomiting up blood all day.”

James continued: “It was not that uncommon for a deputy to simply send an inmate down to medical by himself. That happened with me several times while I was at the jail. I don’t know why they didn’t just send him down to medical.”

Tidwell and Deputy Ken Becker conducted nine cell checks and two security counts between 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., according to court papers. “At no time … did Deputy Tidwell or Becker become aware that Mr. Scott had vomited blood or was otherwise bleeding,” the county’s defense lawyers declared.

At 4:40 p.m., Tidwell testified, Vega pressed the intercom button, and Tidwell asked if he had an emergency. Vega told the officer Scott had vomited and needed medical attention. Tidwell told Vega he had already spoken to the nurse. So Vega yelled “Man down! Man down!” signaling an inmate is in desperate need of help.

Tidwell said he went to the cell and observed Scott “sitting on the bottom bunk wearing eyeglasses, writing something at the desk, and appeared normal.”

Vega and other inmates who overheard them gave dramatically different accounts of Tidwell’s visit.

“I told Tidwell that Mark was vomiting out straight blood,” Vega said in his court declaration. “I pointed out the toilet full of blood to Tidwell. I also tried to show him the bag of blood that Mark had vomited. Tidwell just flat-out refused to call medical.”

When it became obvious Tidwell was not going to help his cellmate, Vega flew into an obscenity-laced rage and tried for a second time to show the toilet full of blood, but the officer refused to look, although he acknowledged knowing Scott was very ill and bleeding, Vega swore in the declaration.

Vega was still yelling when Tidwell walked away, he and other inmates testified.

At 5:30 p.m., Tidwell again observed Scott “was up and alert and appeared normal, with no signs of distress or discomfort,” the defense’s papers say.

At 6:15 p.m., Tidwell briefed night-shift deputies David Pantoja and Michael Matranga on Scott’s vomiting and the nurse’s advice. The three later agreed there was no mention of blood.

Pantoja conducted three cell checks and a security count between 6:25 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and noticed nothing unusual, the defense’s papers say.

In contrast, plaintiffs’ court papers say that, when Pantoja was doing the count, Vega told the deputy that Scott was vomiting blood.

At 9:54 p.m., Vega pressed the intercom button and told Pantoja that Scott had blood around his mouth and needed help. Pantoja went to the cell while Matranga called the medical desk and requested a nurse come to the tier immediately.

It was too late. Scott was lying unresponsive on the lower bunk. Attempts by jail staff and fire personnel to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead at 10:22 p.m.

The coroner could not determine what caused Scott to vomit.

Not long after Scott’s death, Tidwell addressed the pod’s inmates at what is called a “redline assembly,” where the inmates come out of their cells and stand behind a red line on the dayroom floor.

“‘I know what you guys are talking about,’” court declarations by Vega, James and two other inmates describe Tidwell as saying. “‘I saw the blood, but all I can do is call medical, and that’s what I did.’” He said if the inmates wanted to blame someone, they should blame the “people downstairs,” referring to the medical staff.

Vega said in his declaration that he tried to put Scott’s death “out of my mind as best I could and tried to forget about it.”

He said when Katz contacted him in a Pennsylvania prison where he is incarcerated and sought his declaration, he plumbed his mind for unwanted memories.

“Thinking about it again has given me a lot of mental anguish. I have lost sleep.”

He said he now hallucinates at times.

“I see Mark sick in the corner of my cell.”

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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