Widow of Inmate Who Died in a West Virginia Jail Sues for Wrongful Death

old_prison_2.jpgThe widow of a man who died two years ago after being in a West Virginia jail has filed a wrongful death suit. Tina Cline filed suit in Berkeley County Civil Court against individuals and groups that included the Berkeley County Commission, the Sheriff’s Deputy, an Eastern Regional Jail nurse, and the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. She accused them of negligence in allowing her husband, Donald Cline, to be admitted to jail without first receiving a medical evaluation from a physician. Had he received one, she believes that he would be alive today.

On July 21, 2009, Donald Cline was arrested on charges of driving under the influence after being involved in a traffic accident. While in custody, Cline was allegedly unable to keep his eyes open, had slurred speech, and repeatedly fell to the ground. The Sheriff’s Deputy, Chris Cocchran, claimed that he smelled strongly of alcohol and that a 24-ounce can was found on the floorboard of his truck, with a puddle of beer. Yet the suit alleges that when Cline’s blood alcohol level was tested, it was far below the legal limit.

Three hours after his arrest, Cline was transferred to the Eastern Regional Jail, where he was medically screened by a nurse. The next morning, he was found in a fetal position in his cell with no pulse. Cline was pronounced dead at City Hospital in Martinsburg, the cause of death ruled to be intoxication by a combination of drugs. The autopsy revealed traces of methadone, carisoprodol, diazepine, and butalbital in his system.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that roughly 1,000 people died each year in local jails between 2000 and 2007. More than 1,100 died in 2007, with most (566) dying because of illness and 79 dying of drug/alcohol intoxication. While it is easy to condemn people whose actions result in jail time, we should keep in mind that jailers still have a responsibility to keep those in their custody safe. Yet too often, jails and prisons don’t provide the level of health care needed to prevent serious illness or death. While Donald Cline may have violated the law, he did not deserve to die for it.

In a wrongful death suit, a West Virginia wrongful death attorney tries to ensure that the plaintiff can collect a money award for loss of support and services, medical expenses, and other types of injury. You might also be able to collect punitive damages if you could show that the defendant’s behavior was intentionally or grossly negligent. One issue in the Cline case is whether the jury will be convinced that the jail workers’ negligence was mostly to blame for Cline’s death. West Virginia operates under a system of “modified comparative negligence”: if you are partially to blame for an accident, you can still collect a money award in a lawsuit if your level of fault does not reach 50%. If you are 50% or more responsible for the accident, you are not eligible to collect. It is possible that a jury in the Cline case may decide that Cline’s decision to take drugs and drink alcohol makes him equally responsible for his death. An experienced attorney would make sure that the tragic details of the jail’s neglect were made known before the jury made its decision. At the very least, the Wolfe Law Firm hopes that this serves as a cautionary tale to jail workers to take their responsibility to those in their custody seriously.