Suit over inmate’s 2015 death ends in dismissal

A row of cell doors at the Montrose County Jail. A federal lawsuit filed over the 2015 suicide of an inmate ended in late September with the final defendants dismissed. 

The remaining defendants in a federal suit filed over a Montrose County Jail inmate’s death have been dismissed and the case was closed.

A federal judge in September found that the estate of Dillon Blodgett failed to establish a dispute of material fact when it came to the policies of the companies with which the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office had contracted to provide mental health services in the jail. The judge also found that the plaintiff did not provide evidence showing a direct connection between Blodgett’s death by suicide in 2016, and the policies and customs of Correct Care Solutions LLC or Correctional Healthcare Companies, whose staff provided inmate services.

Blodgett, 23, was arrested in November of 2015 on allegations arising from Montrose and Gunnison counties. He was found unresponsive in his cell on Jan. 20, 2016, and died three days later in a Grand Junction hospital. The cause of death was asphyxia; Blodgett used toweling in his cell to hang himself.

Blodgett’s mother, Adrienne Leonard, sued, alleging her son was clearly suicidal and had repeatedly asked for help because of his suicidal tendencies.

Her suit initially named several parties, including the former jail administrator, and alleged deliberate indifference to Blodgett’s medical needs, in violation of the 14th Amendment. Leonard also alleged medical negligence causing Blodgett’s wrongful death; this claim named CHC, CCS and a nurse who was last October dismissed, with prejudice, from the suit.

The former jail administrator was dismissed from the action, also with prejudice, last November. (Dismissal with prejudice means the claim will not be refiled.)

Leonard also sued all defendants for a survival claim.

The remaining defendants, CHS, CCS and counseling/nursing employees Bret Corbridge, Lyn Lawhead and Kristin Laurie, filed for summary judgment in January.

On Sept. 29, the parties filed a motion to dismiss against the individual defendants, without prejudice, with everyone to bear his or her own costs.

U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez on Sept. 30 granted this motion for good cause shown.

He also granted CHS and CCS’ motion for summary judgment, finding Leonard had not established her claims as required by law.

As entities under contract with a governmental agency, the companies can only be liable when their “policy or custom” that represents official policy results in the violation of constitutional rights.

Leonard had argued virtually no treatment was provided to her son to address his substantial risk of suicide, so the defendants' “deficient supervision” can be inferred based on Lawhead’s testimony that she wasn’t sure if she had seen the jail’s policies for evaluating suicide risk.

“The court finds that plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact relating to whether CHC and CCS maintained a policy or custom of providing inadequate medical care or failing to train or supervise their employees,” Martinez wrote.

“On a broad level, because plaintiff has not provided evidence about the medical standards of care applicable to CHC and CCS’s staff, plaintiff cannot establish that defendants maintained a policy or custom of providing inadequate medical care or failing to train its medical staff. Moreover, what constitutes adequate medical care or adequate medical training for counselors, nurses, and social workers is beyond the common knowledge of a lay jury, and plaintiff has not retained an expert witness to testify about these topics.”

Leonard’s only expert witness determined that appropriate care for those at risk of suicide requires ongoing assessment and tailored interventions.

But the expert’s analysis did not specifically identify the defendant’s mental health care policies or procedures or discuss the medical standards relevant to nurses, counselors or social workers, the judge found.

Also, the testimony did not explain why the services provided by CHC or CCS staff is inadequate — there is no genuine issue of material fact, Martinez wrote in the order.

“Moreover, even if plaintiff could establish that CHC and CCS maintained such a policy or custom, plaintiff has failed to provide evidence demonstrating a direct causal connection between Blodgett’s suicide and CHC or CCS’s specific policies or customs,” the order states.

Martinez also granted summary judgment on Leonard’s claims of wrongful death through medical negligence because her suit did not establish the entities’ medical staff had insufficient training or failed to exercise the necessary standard of care for Blodgett. Expert testimony, which Leonard did not offer, was not provided and would have been required in order for a lay jury to hear the case.

Martinez further ruled Leonard’s survival claim fails as a matter of law, because it is premised on a wrongful act on the part of defendants, which Leonard failed to make.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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