Sheriff, hospital may face $5M suit
Notice of intent to sue claims wrongful death
The family of a Navajo man who died while in custody at the Montezuma County Detention Center last fall may request $5 million in damages.
Harrison M. Begay, 38, of Tonalea, Ariz., died inside a holding cell at the jail on Sunday, Oct. 27. Acting on behalf of Begay’s sister, Felicia Herder, Albuquerque attorney Russell Sacks on April 23 filed a notice of intent to sue.
Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell and multiple unknown deputies along with Dr. Todd Fowler and multiple unknown employees at Southwest Memorial Hospital are all named as defendants in the seven-page wrongful-death action.
“It’s so unreal,” Spruell told Montezuma County commissioners on Monday, April 28, in response to the civil action. “I guess they think lying is OK.”
County Attorney John Baxter brought up the matter at the county commissioners’ meeting on Monday, April 28. He said the commissioners were not named as defendants.
The Cortez Journal received a copy of the notice on Tuesday, April 29.
In his letter, Sacks states that Begay, died while in custody at the jail after he was treated at the hospital for acute alcohol intoxication. Sacks said that Begay’s alcoholism was well known to sheriff and hospital officials based on the fact that he was arrested for public intoxication and treated at the emergency room on May 18 and 21 and on Oct. 12 and 25.
“Detention and correctional facilities have an obligation to provide adequate medical care to detainees and prisoners,” Sacks wrote.
Sacks informed sheriff’s officials that a federal civil rights action would also be pursued “for their deliberative indifference to Mr. Begay’s life-threatening medical condition and failing to provide required treatment” during his incarceration.
Jessie Neitzer, director of compliance and risk management at Southwest Memorial Hospital, declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
One of five emergency medicine doctors at Southwest Memorial Hospital, Fowler is a 2000 medical school graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. In 2004, Fowler completed his residency at the Madigan Army Medical Center/University of Washington in Fort Lewis, Wash., and received his emergency medicine board certification in 2005.
A spokesperson for the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office declined further comment, citing the pending litigation.