$500K payout for jail death

March 2, 2019

La PORTE — The La Porte County Board of Commissioners has reached a $500,000 settlement with the family of a Valparaiso woman who died of alcohol withdrawal while in custody at the La Porte County Jail in 2015.

Rachel Barnes, 33, was not provided adequate medical care after her arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.

Barnes was found unresponsive by deputies in a holding cell after being transported to the jail, when a deputy monitoring cameras noticed she was not moving, according to the La Porte County Sheriff’s Department. CPR was performed and an automatic external defibrillator was used, but the attempts were not successful.

The Valparaiso resident died of alcohol withdrawal seizure on April 19, 2015, according to an autopsy report, which also listed pulmonary edema and an enlarged liver as causes of death. The manner of death was determined to be natural.

Her blood alcohol content had been tested at IU Health La Porte Hospital after her arrest, and was reported to be .447 percent. Jail policy prohibits inmates with a BAC of .24 percent or higher from being jailed until receiving medical clearance.

But county attorney Shaw Friedman told the commissioners, “the blood alcohol results from the hospital were not picked up by the transporting deputy. She was admitted to the jail well in excess of the .24 limit.”

The deputy’s failure to secure and forward the information meant that not only did Barnes not receive proper treatment for her condition, but her jailers did not know to be looking for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

“The transporting deputy has ultimately resigned over this issue and the sheriff has taken full steps to make sure we never have a recurrence,” Friedman said.

Barnes was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after she drove her car into a pond near CR-250N near the Porter-La Porte county line on April 17, 2015, reports from the sheriff’s department at the time said, but she did not show signs of excessive alcohol consumption.

“She was a high-functioning alcoholic who showed no signs of her inebriated state at the time of intake, and was mainly treated and observed at the jail — properly — for what everyone believed at the time was drug addiction issues,” Friedman said.

“The jailers having not been informed of the excessive BAC levels were not put on notice to watch for the alcohol withdrawal signs.”

After months of litigation, Barnes’ estate is to be awarded $500,000 in restitution. The commissioners approved $200,000 to be paid from the county government’s liability claims fund. The remainder will be paid by Travelers Insurance, the county’s liability insurance carrier.

The plaintiffs “originally demanded $2.5 million in settlement discussions over two-and-a-half years ago,” Friedman said, “but because of the experts we retained and the solid performance by other deputies and jailers during her incarceration, and their adherence to proper procedure, we were gradually able to work the plaintiff’s demands down to $950,000 when the mediation began.

“After a full day’s mediation and the assistance of a retired Federal Magistrate serving as mediator, we negotiated a total settlement to be paid to the estate of $500,000.”

During the board meeting, Commissioner Vidya Kora asked Sheriff John Boyd if he would like to comment on the situation, but Boyd declined.