Asheville attorney P.J. Roth filed a complaint this week in the matter of the death of Marvis Davidson in the Buncombe County Detention Center. Davidson died of complications due to diabetes in the summer of 2004 and witnesses say she was denied treatment for her medical condition. The complaint charges the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department with wrongful death due to criminal negligence. If Roth wins his case, the outcome would almost certainly mean a major change in liability protection for North Carolina municipalities.
I first reported on this matter for Mountain Xpress back in 2005. As I wrote at that time: “A former guard (who re quested anonymity, fearing reprisals) described having seen serious problems while working there.
Two complaints, the guard said, were filed ‘about [Marvis Davidson's] medical treatment, including failure to correctly administer insulin. And I was told by another guard that Davidson said she had severe stomach pains for four days before she died.’ the former guard said. Davidson was a diabetic, and her autopsy report says she died due to an ischemia (decrease in blood supply) and resulting hemorrhage of her small intestine. Diabetes is a contributory cause of ischemia.”
Following that story I was contacted by a former inmate who had been in an adjacent cell during Davidson’s death. She told me Davidson had been literally screaming in pain, begging for help, and that guards had not only ignored her but had told her to shut up and quit causing a disruption.
Astonishingly, Davidson had previously been incarcerated in the Buncombe County jail, had received treatment for her diabetes, and had been hospitalized from the jail during a diabetic crisis. So there is no reason whatever that the database would have lacked information in this case.
Also following my story, I was contacted by April Nicole Welch, Marvis Davidson’s daughter, who asked me if she might have some basis for legal action concerning her mother’s untimely death. I put her in touch with P.J. Roth who took up her case just days before the statute of limitations ran out. Roth opened the case a couple of years ago, and it has moved through the system in the slow way that civil cases do. Finally, this week, four years after Davidson’s death.
This was the second death at the jail in less than three years. In September 2001, Joey Max Rogers was arrested for operating his lawn mower in a drunken state. The medical examiner noted: “Arrested by B.C. Sheriff’s Dept. for drunk & disorderly — apparently was combative — placed in locked room at approximately 2100 hrs. … Checked at 2130 & found dead on floor.” Neither the medical authorities nor the Sheriff’s Department has explained how a highly intoxicated man who was also found to have a high level of phenobarbital in his blood (a legally prescribed medication, according to medical reports) had managed to break his own neck while alone in a locked room.
According to former guards who have talked to me, Rogers was thrown against a wall by a jailer. But nothing was ever done about the death.
What I’ve learned in the years since then is that North Carolina law protects municipal governments from liability in a major way and that permits jailers to do what they will pretty much without consequence.
The state law prohibits damage claims against municipalities UNLESS the municipality carries liability insurance. But IF the municipality carries liability insurance, it is given a pass on the first $500,000. That is to say if someone wins a claim for $1 million, the winner only gets $500,000. That means that attorneys are very unlikely to take cases in which damages might be less than that amount.
If you are an occasional criminal, working for minimum wage, it is entirely possible that a jury will decide that your life was worth less than $500.000, so your family could win a case and get nothing—including payment to your attorney. It’s no wonder that lawyers in this state are reluctant to take on liability cases involving municipalities, given that they may put years into litigation and come up empty handed. Roth has now been working on the Davidson case for two years and is only now moving toward a hearing.
Roth told me that he took the case for two reasons. The first is that he wants to attempt to secure justice for Davidson’s family, but the second is that he thinks the case might make “good law.” Under this state’s rules, if a public official’s failure to perform required duties is judged to be criminal, penalties are tripled which could bump any reasonable jury award above the $500,000 threshold. Roth predicts that if he wins this case Buncombe County will appeal the decision up to the state Supreme Court if necessary, and that his hope is that an ultimate favorable decision will help protect inmates statewide from jailer abuse.
As he told me, “Since I believe there are actually a bunch of well-meaning lawyers out there, a success in Marvis’ case might encourage more of them to take inmate suits across the state and thereby increase pressure on the municipalities to clean up their act.”