Jail ignored woman’s illness, causing her ‘avoidable’ death, lawyer says. Daughter suing

Instead of providing medical care to an ailing 60-year-old woman, jail staff in Alabama ignored her worsening illness and released her when she was too sick to recover, according to a new federal lawsuit.

A lack of medical attention “sealed the fate of Mary J. Strong” on April 5, 2022, when she died of septic shock after showing signs of pneumonia at Dallas County Jail in Selma, the lawsuit says.

“This was completely avoidable and preventable,” Martin E. Weinberg, one of the attorneys representing the case, told McClatchy News April 16.

The lawsuit details a “common scheme” in which the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department is accused of denying inmates, including Strong, medical treatment before releasing them. The reason, according to the suit, comes down to money and the jail looking to avoid bills related to medical costs.

Strong was held on a $1.5 million bond after she was incarcerated on charges stemming from “drug-related offenses” in June 2021, according to a complaint filed April 4. By March 2022 to April 2022, jail staff knew Strong was seriously ill, and the signs were “obvious,” the complaint says.

The jail requested to release Strong to her family instead of taking her to an emergency room after she spent weeks without any medical intervention, according to the complaint.

Another inmate told Strong’s family that the jail released her since she wasn’t eating or using the bathroom, was unable to walk, struggled to breathe and was in “poor condition,” the complaint states.

“She was released from jail two days before her death on a medical bond, after being on a $1.5 million dollar bond, under a cloud of secrecy in order for Dallas County to avoid financial responsibility,” Weinberg said.

Strong’s family called an ambulance for her the morning of April 3, 2022, when she was taken to a hospital and found to have sepsis that proved fatal, according to the complaint.

Denise Strong, her daughter, is suing those she says caused her mother’s death. The Dallas County Commission, which funds the county’s jail, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Michael L. Granthum and several jail employees are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was first reported by AL.com.

The county’s commissioners and the sheriff’s department didn’t respond to requests for comment from McClatchy News on April 16.

‘Would have likely survived’

A lung infection like pneumonia is one of the common causes of sepsis, according to the Cleveland Clinic. After sepsis becomes severe, it can lead to septic shock, which the lawsuit says Strong died of.

“Any jail staff, medical staff, or correctional officers should know that pneumonia requires immediate medical attention,” the complaint says.

Treatment for sepsis “needs to begin immediately” and includes antibiotics, IV fluids, blood pressure medications and, potentially, surgery, the Cleveland Clinic says.

The lawsuit argues that if Strong had received proper and timely care, including antibiotics, she “would have likely survived.”

Denise Strong and her legal counsel “have a lot of questions” about her mother’s “medical care while she was in the Dallas County jail and the extent and quality of that care,” according to Weinberg.

The jail never informed Strong’s family that she was ill in jail, and her bond request signed by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department never specified the medical reasons for her release, the complaint says.

The department has a “history of releasing inmates due to rising medical costs” and “delaying medical treatment,” according to the complaint.

In a 2019 meeting, Granthum asked the Dallas County Commission to increase funding for the jail’s medical care, according to the complaint, which says Granthum and prior sheriffs have publicly spoken out about the lack of medical funding.

“(A)s the budget ran (last year) we only had $140,00 allowed for medical,” Granthum told the county’s commissioners at the time, the complaint says. “Why that number was in there, I have no idea, because we’ve had medical bills before where one inmate required $250,000-$300,000.”

According to Denise Strong’s legal counsel, “there is no evidence that funding for medical care has been increased even though it has been requested by the Sheriff.”

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages to be determined by a jury at trial.

“The Sheriff and his employees and/or contract employees waited until Strong was beyond the point of where her health could improve with medical treatment to have her released, and even then, they did not transfer or release her to a medical facility,” the complaint says.

Weinberg told McClatchy News that “this case highlights the need for a broader discussion on how local entities handle medical care of inmates.”

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