Jury awards Utah family $10M for 2016 death of inmate in Davis County Jail

Jul 26, 2022, 7:01 PM | Updated: Jul 27, 2022, 10:00 am
Heather Miller died at the Davis County Jail on December 21, 2016, after she fell (File photo)...
Heather Miller died at the Davis County Jail on December 21, 2016, after she fell (File photo)
(File photo)

DAVIS COUNTY, Utah — A jury awarded more than $10 million to the family of a Utah woman who died in the Davis County Jail in 2016.

“Heather Miller died at the Davis County Jail on Dec. 21, 2016, after she fell from a top bunk, ruptured her spleen, and slowly bled to death without receiving a proper medical assessment or monitoring,” stated a Tuesday press release from attorneys Tad D. Draper and Dan Baczynski. Miller was 28.

A Utah federal jury found Friday that Davis County and a nurse both violated Miller’s right.

Cynthia Stella, mother of Heather Miller who died after a fall at the Davis County Jail, discusses the Civil Rights Action filed against the Davis County Jail. A jury awarded her family $10 million (Deseret News)

It said Nurse Anderson violated Miller’s constitutional rights by denying and delaying medical care. They also found Davis County violated her state and constitutional rights by running the jail without training or supervision for its nurses, and for abandoning and not having nursing protocols, in violation of national standards and the Davis County Jail’s policy manual.

In 2018, Miller’s mother Cynthia Stella said that if her daughter had been cared for or checked on in a timely manner, she would still be alive.

The fall ruptured Miller’s spleen, nearly splitting it in two according to the state medical examiner. Her mother said her daughter was in obvious pain at that point but she was just given a different cell with a lower bunk. At least two hours and 44 minutes later she was taken for medical care and EMTs were called but it was too late to save her and she died at the hospital.

The family said that the medical examiner found 1.3 liters of blood in her body cavity as she bled to death with internal injuries.

She was arrested on Dec. 20, 2016 while a man in the car fled from police and was later arrested. Heroin was found in the car and Miller was arrested. The following night she was dead.

The lawsuit claimed despite her slow movements to another bunk at the time of her injury, her vital signs were never checked. For nearly three hours Miller wasn’t checked by staff.

According to Stella in a KSL.com report from 2018, she didn’t even know her daughter had been arrested until she called the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office to confirm her death. She said  one of the hardest parts of the tragedy was allegedly being told by jail officers that they assumed Miller was going through drug withdrawals because of why she was arrested.

A toxicology test performed as part of the autopsy showed Miller had trace amounts of meth and marijuana in her system and no heroin, Stella said in 2018.

Officials with the Davis County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release Tuesday that states in part: “The Davis County Sheriff’s Office is reviewing the decision and appeal options with attorneys. We will not be making any comments related to the lawsuit at this time.”

The release went on to say:

However, we will emphasize to those with loved ones in our care and custody, as well as community members, that our fundamental duty is to serve, and we are actively engaged in improving the lives of everyone in Davis County, including those in our custody. For the last several years, our office has prioritized policies and other initiatives surrounding medical care. We have established a Life Safety Committee that meets regularly to review medical procedures, protocols, and outcomes. This committee includes community members, a physician, a licensed clinical social worker, and a local criminal justice professor. We revised intake protocols for better screening of inmates. We hired a health services administrator to provide high-level supervision and oversight.

Most recently, our newly constructed Medical Observation Unit was opened, greatly enhancing the medical care to those we serve. The new facility now has the capacity to serve four times the amount of inmates as the original unit, which had a capacity to serve six inmates at a time. Those entering our care and custody will see improved treatment and observation with substance withdrawal. Supporting our new facility is a great nursing staff of highly competent individuals who have empathy and work hard to provide a high level of medical care to what can be a challenging population.

Sheriff Kelly V. Sparks added, “All of us at the Davis County Jail care deeply about the health, safety, and welfare of those in our custody, and we will continue to find ways to improve the level of service and medical care we provide.”

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Jury awards Utah family $10M for 2016 death of inmate in Davis County Jail