A federal jury in Utah on Friday awarded $10 million in damages to the family of 28-year-old Heather Ashton Miller, who fell in her Davis County Jail cell in 2016 and later died at a hospital after a jail nurse brushed off her injuries, a lawsuit alleged.
Miller arrived at the jail on Dec. 20, 2016, on misdemeanor complaints of possessing drug paraphernalia and heroin. At 10:06 p.m. the next day, Miller was pronounced dead hours after a fall from the top bunk of her cell, according to a lawsuit filed by Miller’s mother, Cynthia Stella, in U.S. District Court.
The jury ruled Friday that jail nurse Marvin Anderson was “deliberately indifferent” to Miller’s medical needs after the fall. The jury also found that Davis County was liable for her death because it didn’t provide adequate training or protocols for caring for inmates’ medical problems.
Stella’s attorney Daniel Baczynski called the verdict an “absolute victory” for his client — and for other civil rights cases in Utah.
“We think it’s a huge deal,” he said. “Not only does it benefit Cynthia’s family, but anybody who’s been dealing with this, and hopefully prevents death in future.”
Davis County representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment on the litigation Wednesday. After Miller’s death, the jail enacted a set of protocols to adequately treat medical problems.
Miller fell from the top bunk of her cell during a “head count” just before 6 p.m. on Dec. 21, 2016. The nurse went to the cell after the fall but didn’t take her vitals or assess her, although Miller said she was in pain and was unable to breathe or walk, according to the lawsuit.
She didn’t receive proper treatment for about three hours, the complaint states, and was instead moved to a room with a lower bed to sleep and given two ibuprofen tablets.
Around 8 p.m., a jail deputy found Miller on the floor with an open wound on her chin, moaning in pain. Nurses, according to testimony from a jail staffer, told employees to “not think too hard about it.” Deputies instead brought their concerns to a supervisor, and Miller was transferred to the medical unit.
Miller was described as “cold, wet, gray and seizing,” according to court documents. Nurse Anderson then called for an ambulance. Court documents state Miller’s heart stopped within 10 minutes of being in the ambulance. She was pronounced dead about 40 minutes after arriving at the emergency room.
A medical examiner ruled she died from blunt force trauma and had a ruptured spleen. An autopsy found more than a liter of blood in her abdomen.
During the five-day civil trial, a state medical examiner and other medical experts testified that Miller’s injury would have been survivable if she had received timely medical care, according to court documents.
The Attorney General’s Office looked into Miller’s death in 2018, but declined to file criminal charges. Their investigation revealed that staffers thought Miller was acting strangely after the fall because of drug withdrawal.
Miller’s death was one in a series of questionable jail deaths in 2016, when Utah led the nation in its rate of jail deaths. Recently released state jail death data shows Utah jails reported the same number of deaths in 2020 as they did in 2016 — after years of decline and pushes for reform to address the issue.
Baczynski said he hoped this verdict would prevent future deaths, saying, “until they see that this is going to be costly for them on the other side, they lack the incentive to change.”