The Snohomish County Jail is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Snohomish County Jail is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Jails had ‘immunity’ to lawsuits over overdoses — so her family settled

In 2018, Denise Huffer died of a methamphetamine overdose in her cell at the Snohomish County Jail. Her family took a $50,000 deal in February.

EVERETT — Six years after Denise Huffer died in her county jail cell, Snohomish County has agreed to pay her family $50,000.

Superior Court Judge Marybeth Dingledy ruled state law made the jail immune to liability, citing a state law saying no damages can be claimed in a wrongful death lawsuit if a person was “engaged in the commission of a felony” that caused their death.

In February 2018, Denise Huffer died from a methamphetamine overdose at the jail in downtown Everett. The defendants, including Snohomish County, argued Huffer possessed methamphetamine in jail, a felony, shielding them from liability, according to court documents.

“While I am sympathetic to this situation, I cannot ignore the law,” Judge Dingledy wrote in court documents. “I hope that the appellate courts look at this case and make changes to the law, but as a trial court (judge), I am bound to follow the current law.”

A month after the hearing, Huffer’s brother Jeffrey Williams appealed the court’s decision.

Shortly afterward, the parties reached a $50,000 settlement. The county did not acknowledge any fault for Huffer’s death. This month, the settlement was finalized.

Bridget Casey, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, said the county decided to resolve the case because of the “risks” involved in a jury trial and the costs of further liability.

Casey said the case was settled for a “nominal” amount that reflected the county’s confidence in their case.

Shortly after the parties settled, the state Court of Appeals ruled in a similar case that the law could no longer be applied in that context. In 2018, Derek Batton died in the Grant County Jail after ingesting heroin his cellmate brought into the jail. Attorneys similarly moved to dismiss the case, arguing Batton committed a felony that caused his death.

The appellate judges ruled the law effectively gave the jail “complete immunity,” nullifying the county’s duty to protect its inmates.

“Allowing the County to forsake its duty because Mr. Batton acted in a manner that the jail was required to protect him from is ‘unsupportable from a policy perspective,’” appellate judges wrote. “Anything short of requiring a jail to protect its inmates from a reasonably foreseeable self-injury would render a jail’s duty meaningless.”

Casey said Thursday the county was aware there was a similar legal argument on appeal when it settled with Huffer’s family.

“Although factually distinguishable, and possibly the subject of further appellate review, the other case on appeal was a factor in the County’s risk management decision to resolve the Huffer matter for a nominal settlement, with no admission of liability by County defendants,” Casey said.

Brian Sullivan, the plaintiff’s attorney, said Wednesday he believed Huffer’s case would have survived had they appealed.

“I wish we’d have been able to hold out longer,” Sullivan said Thursday. “The tough thing about fighting the government is they can fight you until the end.”

Huffer was booked into jail in late January 2018. Corrections staff found a bag of methamphetamine in her sock and confiscated it, according to court documents. Huffer was placed in solitary confinement.

Early the morning of Feb. 1, two weeks after being booked, she had a “drastic” change in her mental status, according to the lawsuit. Jail staff found her thrashing around, mumbling and not fully dressed.

Huffer was taken to the jail’s medical unit to be evaluated, the complaint read. Her blood pressure and heart rate were elevated and she was constantly moving.

Medical staff recommended Huffer be placed in the observation unit. She wasn’t. Instead, she returned to her solitary confinement cell around 10 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

Over the next few hours, corrections staff noted Huffer was lying on the floor and incoherent, according to jail records. Around 2:30 p.m., a custody officer noticed Huffer was completely still. He called a medical emergency, but did not administer aid, lawyers wrote.

Huffer was pronounced dead. She was 62.

Huffer’s sister, Tracy Gielski, sued the county, jail staff, medical staff and a health care service company. The lawsuit alleged the jail failed to protect Huffer from acquiring drugs and ignored warning signs that she was suffering from lethal drug intoxication. In February 2023, Williams took over as the representative for Huffer’s estate.

In March 2023, the defendants’ attorneys Katherine Bosch and Jennifer Smitrovich asked a judge to dismiss all claims, arguing Huffer knowingly possessed methamphetamine while in jail.

Sullivan disputed this in court filings, questioning how Huffer could have obtained the drugs in solitary confinement.

“The only evidence that exists is that when Ms. Huffer died, methamphetamine was in her bloodstream,” Sullivan wrote. “This is not sufficient to show that Ms. Huffer either knowingly possessed methamphetamine or had it in her control while in the Jail. Reasonable minds can, and most certainly do, differ on this issue, making this a question of fact that must be decided by the jury.”

The defendants’ attorneys wrote that Sullivan provided no evidence to suggest Huffer didn’t possess the drugs.

“Plaintiff has not provided even an imaginary scenario in which Ms. Huffer’s possession of methamphetamine inside a jail was not ‘knowing,’” wrote Smitrovich, one of the attorneys for the defendants.

Since 2005, at least 27 people have died in the Snohomish County Jail. Since September, four inmates have died.

Of the four inmates who died, three were in the facility’s medical detox unit, intended to monitor inmates with addictions to opiates, benzodiazepines or alcohol.

Snohomish County Sheriff Susanna Johnson said the jail is installing cameras within the medical detox unit, as part of a $3.1 million project approved under former Sheriff Adam Fortney.

Jonathan Tall: 425-339-3486; jonathan.tall@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @snocojon.

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