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Deceased mentally ill inmate was left ‘naked and suffering’ in SLO County Jail, lawsuit says

The wife of a Hanford man who died in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody last year says in a lawsuit filed Monday the county ignored her husband’s obvious need for medical and mental health treatment and instead locked him into a solitary cell, contributing to his death from an embolism.

The wrongful death complaint filed nearly a year to the day after 62-year-old Russell Hammer, who was suffering from psychosis, was booked into the County Jail alleges that a host of failures from medical and mental health officials and Sheriff’s Office staff resulted in his death.

Lawsuits only represent one side of the story; San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal said Tuesday the county has not yet received the complaint, though she noted it had previously rejected three administrative claims filed in relation to Hammer’s death, most recently in July.

Neal said the county plans to defend against the lawsuit filed by Margo Benson-Hammer.

Hammer died Nov. 27, 2017, after complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release at the time. He became unresponsive as jail staff were wheeling him to the jail medical facility, the county’s autopsy report said.

The county’s medical examiner found Hammer’s death was natural, caused by pulmonary thrombo-embolism and deep vein thrombosis of the left leg.

Hammer was the third inmate to die in the jail in 2017 and the 12th inmate to die in Sheriff’s Office custody since January 2012. Since Hammer’s death, one other inmate has died in SLO County Jail custody, of a reported suicide.

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The Tribune previously reported that Morro Bay police officers responded Nov. 6, 2017, to a report that Hammer attacked his wife with a knife. In a separate claim filed with the city of Morro Bay, Benson-Hammer alleged that officers ignored her pleas to not arrest her husband and instead place him on an emergency mental health “50-51” hold.

According to the lawsuit, officers brought Hammer to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, where a doctor there authorized Hammer’s transport to jail “in spite of the fact that Russell Hammer was experiencing a medical crisis and was in fact gravely disabled.”

The lawsuit says that Hammer suffered from Parkinson’s disease, acute psychosis and numerous other medical ailments, and that staff at the hospital failed to examine his medical records to discern what his conditions were.

Once at jail, Hammer wasn’t given his prescribed medications, the lawsuit says, and no one at the county contacted his pharmacy to find out what his medical regimen was. Instead, a jail doctor allowed Hammer to be placed in solitary confinement.

Within 24 hours, Hammer’s mental state had decompensated to the point where he was “eating his feces ‘per command auditory hallucinations,’” the lawsuit alleges.

“No medical care was provided to treat Russell Hammer,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants simply locked him in a room, having taken his clothes, to leave him alone, naked, and suffering.”

The lawsuit contends that San Luis Obispo County officials have a history and pattern of putting mentally ill people in solitary “safety cells” instead of treating them.

“There is nothing safe about (the county’s) use of safety cells,” the lawsuit reads.

Hammer was eventually taken to the county’s inpatient psychiatric unit, only to be cleared for return to the jail two days later; the complaint argues that he should have been taken to a medical facility.

Once back at the jail, the lawsuit says his family — including his 85-year-old mother — were denied pre-scheduled visitations with Hammer.

On Nov. 26, the lawsuit alleges, a jail medical doctor evaluated a gravely ill Hammer during a “sick call,” where the doctor did not find cellulitis in his leg. The complaint says that blood clot dislodged the next day, causing the pulmonary embolism that eventually killed Hammer.

The complaint alleges wrongful death due to reckless and intentional conduct and civil rights violations. It seeks an unspecified amount of damages to cover hospital and medical expenses, funeral and burial expenses, loss of familial and economic support, emotional distress, pain and suffering and the recovery of legal fees.

In addition to Sheriff’s and county Public Health officials — the usual targets of other recently filed wrongful death lawsuits — Benson-Hammer’s lawsuit also names Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and French Hospital, as well legal malpractice against SLO Defenders, the law firm currently contracted to perform public defender duties for the county.

The lawsuit was filed by Paula Canny, the Bay Area attorney who has represented the families of other San Luis Obispo County Jail inmates who died in custody. In July 2017, Canny represented the family of Andrew Holland, a 36-year-old Atascadero resident whose restraint in a plastic chair for nearly two straight days and subsequent death led to a $5 million settlement.

The FBI has confirmed that there is an open investigation into allegations into civil rights abuses at the jail.

Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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