The private medical staff that cares for inmates inside the Arapahoe County Detention Facility allowed a 37-year-old man to die on the floor of his cell in a pool of blood and vomit after ignoring his rapidly declining health, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.
Jeffrey Lillis died on Dec. 14, 2014, from sepsis caused by bacterial pneumonia after complaining for days that he didn’t feel well, recording an escalating fever and coughing up blood. His death involved a rare “cadaveric spasm,” in which the entire muscular system stiffens at death and is “usually associated with violent deaths happening under extremely physical circumstances with intense emotion,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado.
“It is awful,” said Erica Grossman, who is one of the lawyers representing Lillis’s children. “Jeffrey Lillis was only 37 and died of an entirely treatable infection because no one would get him medical care.”
The lawsuit names Arapahoe County, Correct Care Solutions LLC, Correctional Healthcare Companies, Great Peak Healthcare Services, Correctional Healthcare Services, Maxim Healthcare Services, a doctor and six nurses as defendant.
Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher declined to comment on the lawsuit. So did a spokesman for Correct Care Solutions and its employees.
Lillis had been feeling sick since the beginning of December 2014, and on Dec. 11 he sent a medical request to the jail staff saying, “Help, I am very sick, with a fever, headaches, cough, overall not feeling so good also my skin is so dry it’s driving me crazy,” the lawsuit said.
Lillis’s pleas for help went on for days as his temperature continued to rise, he began coughing blood and experienced nausea and diarrhea. At one point, a nurse made him spit blood into a basin to prove he was producing it in a cough, the lawsuit said.
When Lillis finally saw a doctor, he was prescribed cough medicine not available in the detention center. X-rays were not ordered.
On the evening he died, Lillis repeatedly asked for medical help, coughed blood, was restless and holding his head in his hands before he eventually collapsed while using the toilet in his cell, the lawsuit said.
Instead of rushing to his aid, a nurse asked to watch a video of the collapse before she responded. Ten minutes later, the nurse found Lillis lying on the floor with a faint pulse, blood coming out of his mouth and surrounded by vomit, according to the lawsuit.
Even then, the jail staff was not ready to respond to a medical crisis. A defibrillator was not readily available on the floor where Lillis was housed, and a suction machine had not been stored with the tubing, leaving nurses to scramble to find the parts needed to use it, the lawsuit said.
“The only way Mr. Lillis could get his emergent condition treated as an emergency was to die on the floor in his own blood and vomit,” the lawsuit says.
The autopsy found that Lillis’s left lung was filled with so much fluid it weighed two times more than his right lung.
After Lillis’s death, Arapahoe County changed its policy to require doctors to routinely see inmates who are too sick to stay in the general population units.
But the policy change was too little, too late, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit blames Lillis’s death not only on the careless attitude of the nurses and doctor who saw him but also on the privatization of health care in county jails around the country.
Health care companies and county jails are motivated to keep costs low by adopting “wait and see” approaches to inmates’ medical conditions rather than provide the immediate treatment needed, the lawsuit claims.
“Medical care in jails has become scandalously deliberately indifferent, causing serious injuries and death to countless inmates around the country,” the lawsuit said. “Many of these deaths are from entirely preventable or treatable diseases that rarely kill people outside of jail, such as bacterial pneumonia. These conditions or diseases are simply ignored and these inmates are left to die (often on the floor of their cell) without ever receiving any timely medical intervention.”
The complaint cites 10 other cases where people died or became seriously ill in jails where medical care was provided by Correct Care Solutions and Correctional Healthcare Companies. Five those cases happened in Colorado jails.
The same day that Lillis died a Colorado jury awarded a former Jefferson County inmate, Kenneth McGill, $11 million for failing to provide timely medical care as he suffered a stroke in that county’s detention center. McGill’s lawsuit also accused Correct Care Solutions of encouraging a pattern of indifferent medical care to save money.
In March, Correct Care Solutions was named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed over the death of an inmate in the Fremont County jail. John Patrick Walter’s medication was abruptly cut off and he suffered psychotic delusions and physical abuse by deputies, that lawsuit said.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the family by Holland, Holland, Edwards & Grossman and the Killmer, Lane & Newman law firms, said the deliberately indifferent care violated Lillis’s 14th and Eighth Amendment rights for equal protection under the law and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. It asks for an unspecified amount in damages.
Lillis is survived by his wife and five children.