The county of Humboldt has settled the federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from the 2014 jail death of Daren Borges, agreeing to pay Borges' family $3.5 million in damages and legal fees, and to make various changes to jail policy.
Borges, 42, a homeless, schizophrenic poet and artist, was living in Eureka at the time of his June 13, 2014, arrest on suspicion of public intoxication. Eureka police officers arrested him at about 2:15 p.m. near the corner of Seventh and D streets and booked him into the jail 25 minutes later. Correctional officers placed Borges alone in a sobering cell, where he was found unresponsive about an hour and 20 minutes later.
In August, a federal jury found county correctional officers failed to follow policy and recklessly disregarded Borges' obvious medical needs and effectively caused his death when they rushed him through the booking process and opted not to have him medically screened before placing him into the sobering cell where he died of a methamphetamine overdose. The jury, which deliberated for about 10 hours before returning its unanimous verdicts, also found that Humboldt County had failed to adequately train its correctional officers.
Immediately after the jury's $2.5 million verdict, the county indicated it would seek to have the judgment thrown out and ask for a new trial in the case but it appears settlement negotiations have been underway since October, according to court records.
Journal attempts to reach County Counsel Jeff Blanck for this story were unsuccessful but Dale Galipo, who along with John Fattahi represented Borges' family, said the county "quickly realized" case law and evidence were contrary to its position in the case and there was a "strong likelihood" that a continued effort to fight the verdict would only drive up attorneys' fees.
Fattahi said a recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bolstered the legal standard used in Borges' case — essentially saying that correctional officers have a duty to intervene in situations where pre-trial detainees are in a state that a reasonable person would see as requiring medical care. Seeing the Ninth Circuit case, Fattahi said the county realized settlement was its best option.
And that represented an abrupt change of course, the attorneys said, as the county had been unwilling to seriously discuss settlement prior to trial.
"They made no offer," Fattahi said, adding that he and Galipo made several offers over the course of two or three settlement conferences but all were rejected.
"For whatever reason," Galipo said, "I think they were convinced they were going to win."
Blanck told the Times-Standard he is pleased the county was able to settle the case but "not pleased with the dollar amount," adding that he thinks jail staff was put in a difficult situation because they didn't know how much meth Borges had ingested and he "displayed no definitive symptoms for meth."
Evidence presented at trial in the case shows that while county booking policy dictated that jail staff had to answer 35 questions — things like whether Borges showed physical signs of trauma, appeared intoxicated, seemed oriented to self, date, time and place and suffered from mental illness — do a full pat-down search and remove his shoes and socks before booking him, correctional officers rushed through the process in about two minutes and 40 seconds. In video of the booking process, it doesn't appear as though Borges is speaking or answering questions, though the video does show him sweating profusely and listing from side to side. Once placed in the sobering cell, the video shows Borges stripping off clothes, splashing water on his face from the toilet and writhing on the floor over the course of about 45 minutes before falling still in an awkward position on his side. Correctional officers would realize he wasn't breathing and enter the cell to find him dead about 41 minutes later.
The settlement stipulates that $2.5 million of the $3.5 million total will go to Borges' mother, Stephany Borges, with the remainder going to pay legal fees. The settlement also includes some "nonmonetary provisions." These include that the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office will implement mandatory trainings on recognizing methamphetamine toxicity during the jail's pre-booking process, implement trainings on excited delirium, modify sobering cell policies to incorporate Institute for Medical Quality standards, enact a policy to track and document the training of correctional staff and enact a policy "ensuring all jail staff receive Medical Issues training" prior to completing their field training programs.
Galipo said these negotiated policy changes were incredibly important to the Borges family.
"It was really never about the money for our client," he said.
Contacted for this story, Stephany Borges and her daughter Sofia Borges provided the Journal with a joint statement.
"Our family is deeply relieved that this four-year fight has finally come to an end," the statement reads. "The reforms that the county and jail have agreed to will save lives. This verdict and outcome speaks volumes about the importance of taking our constitutional rights seriously. No one should ever be denied the fundamental right to necessary, life-saving medical care. We are grateful to our lawyers for fighting for Daren and all the others that don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves. We are grateful to our civil jury of local residents for taking a stand and holding their community and the powers that be accountable to the law and their own policies. Daren was not the first to die unjustly at this jail, but we sincerely hope that with these new critical medical training and screening procedures in place that he will be the last. Thank you for respecting our privacy as we move forward and conclude our grieving process."
Fattahi, who negotiated the non-monetary portion of the settlement, said the large $2.5 million verdict and rising attorneys' fees gave him the leverage to negotiate the provisions of the settlement from the county in exchange for lowering its total payout. The terms, he said, were aimed at pushing the jail toward standard best practices and also addressing some of the deficiencies highlighted by the Borges case.
For example, Fattahi said one of the two correctional deputies who screened Borges when booking him into jail hadn't been trained on how to identify medical symptoms of an overdose and the other hadn't received the training in the past three years.
"We thought it was important that the county couldn't just say, 'The jury made a mistake,' and then go back to standard operating procedure," he said. "We really felt they need to give the officers the training they need to recognize when somebody needs medical attention."
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said jail policies had already changed before the jury verdict in the Borges case to require that a nurse evaluate every person booked into jail custody. The jail also now has protocols in place to make sure an inmate detoxing in custody — whether from alcohol, heroin or another substance — gets the required medical supervision and care. Honsal said the added training requirements under the settlement are positive, noting that the jail has a lot of correctional officers with less than five years experience.
Honsal noted that the jail books about 10,000 inmates annually, with about 3,000 of them coming into the facility after public intoxication or under the influence arrests.
"The fact is that we have a highly addicted population," he said. "We're seeing more and more people under the influence and that's something we have to deal with in the jail, but it's something we're also going to need help on the outside to address."
Fattahi noted that the settlement agreement is binding and remains under the jurisdiction of a federal judge to enforce its terms, including the added trainings, medical protocols and record keeping.
"Certainly," Fattahi said, "I intend to make sure the county is complying with it."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.