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Missoula County must pay $565K for inmate's death

MISSOULA -- Missoula County must pay $565,500 in damages to the family of a woman who died of a seizure in the county detention center in 2009.

A Missoula District Court jury ruled that county officials were mostly responsible for the death of Heather Holly Wasson, 31. Wasson died of an alcohol withdrawal seizure about 36 hours after she was jailed on a probation violation.

"They admitted they violated their own policies," said Cliff Edwards, the attorney for Wasson's estate. "Plus they said she didn't tell us she was vomiting or sick, and that turned out not to be true. That was pretty devastating for the jury."

Wasson was on probation for felony drug possession and forgery convictions when her probation officer told law enforcement officers he believed she had been drinking, in violation of her release conditions. Officers arrested her at home at 4:30 a.m. and took her to solitary confinement at the detention center.

Edwards said at the time, Wasson had been drinking, was uncooperative and threatened to kill herself. She answered a questionnaire about her substance use and potential for withdrawal problems.

"Under that screening, they were supposed to put her on 30-minute review watch in addition to the camera (in the solitary confinement cell)," Edwards said. "They did not do that. She put them on notice she was at risk for withdrawal. They don't follow their procedures to watch her, and she dies from it."

On Wednesday, Missoula County risk manager Hal Luttschwager said the county would not appeal the verdict or damages.

"We're trying to identify solutions for future situations involving addicts in custody, as well as policies and procedures in force at the detention center." Luttschwager said. "We're going to talk it over, digest the matter, and hope to find some remedy for the perceived problem identified by the jury. We're going to try to improve our public image and the policies for acceptance of addicted individuals in custody."

Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen did not return calls requesting comment about how the verdict might affect personnel or policies at the detention center.

***

The beginning of Wasson's fatal seizure was caught on the cell room video, but deputies didn't respond for an hour and 19 minutes. A coroner's inquest at the time ruled there was nothing criminal about her death.

Wasson's family sued Missoula County in 2011, claiming jail officers failed to properly treat her for withdrawal symptoms.

Edwards said Missoula County officials presented an edited version of the 36 hours of video from Wasson's cell and testified that she didn't make any claims about nausea or withdrawal problems. But a complete version of the video showed Wasson complaining of those symptoms two hours before she died.

"I am astounded that a county jailer would get up in front of a jury and say I reviewed all 36 hours of the video, and it didn't include that portion," Edwards said. "That same tape had that exchange with the deputy and he left it out. There's no other conclusion but that it was deliberate."

Spectrum Medical Services provided nurses to the Missoula County Detention Center. Edwards said Spectrum reached a confidential settlement with Wasson's estate before the trial with Missoula County started.

The trial lasted four days before Missoula District Judge Karen Townsend. The jury deliberated six and a half hours before delivering its verdict.

The jury found both Missoula County and Wasson negligent in her death, but assigned the county 65 percent of the blame. They awarded damages of $780,000 for the wrongful death and $90,000 for the pain and suffering Wasson endured before dying.

Subtracting the 35 percent for Wasson's responsibility, that left Missoula County liable for $565,500 in damages.

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