An Illinois federal judge has ordered that a civil lawsuit brought by the estate of an Indian woman, who died in early 2012 after a 15-day hunger strike at the Lake County jail, move forward on the claim that the jail’s medical staff was deliberately indifferent to the woman’s medical needs.
On Oct. 12, 2011, Lyvita Gomes, an undocumented immigrant living in Illinois, was arrested for failing to show up to jury duty. She was brought to the Lake County jail where she was also charged with resisting an officer.
Since Gomes was a non-citizen, she should not have even received the jury summons in the first place. However, because she used a visa to obtain a driver’s license in 2007, she ended up in the jury system.
After her arrest in October 2011, her case was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who determined that her visa had expired and started the deportation process.
She was initially released from custody, but on Dec. 14, 2011 she was arrested for failing to appear in court on the resisting an officer charge and returned to the Lake County jail.
Her initial intake form from the day of her arrest indicated that Gomes was anxious and appeared paranoid because she kept asking about the medical staff’s credentials, according to court records.
Two days after her arrest jail medical staff noted that Gomes had not eaten or drank any fluids since her arrest. On Dec. 18, Gomes told staff that she would not eat until she left jail.
At the time, medical and mental health care at the jail was provided by Nashville-based Correct Care Solutions, a private company that had a $2 million contract with Lake County. CCS is named in the lawsuit along with its staffers who cared for Gomes.
Gomes’ mental stability further came into question during her court appearance on December 19, when she insisted that she was in court for a tennis lesson.
According to court records, Gomes did not have a documented visit with a medical physician at the jail until Dec. 22, eight days into her hunger strike. (On that day, a medical staffer incorrectly noted that it had been six days since she had eaten or drank any fluids.)
One day later, staff noted that Gomes’ condition was worsening and that she had lost ten pounds since Dec. 18.
Despite her deteriorating condition, the medical staff classified her condition as stable until Dec. 29, when she was transferred to the a hospital. Gomes died five days later on Jan. 3, 2013.
Six months later, Gomes’ relatives brought the civil lawsuit for her death against Lake County officials and the medical defendants from Correct Care Solutions.
In a motion that the case be dismissed, CCS said that the medical defendants repeatedly examined and assessed Gomes on 57 occasions during a 15 day period and she refused treatment.
In her order this week, Judge Sharon Coleman ruled “there is ample evidence in the record to raise questions of fact as to whether the medical staff simply ignored Gomes’ worsening condition in a situation that even a layperson would understand to be potentially life threatening.”
The judge also said there are questions about whether Gomes’ mental state prevented her from knowingly refusing treatment.
In her ruling, Coleman dropped the claims against the county, stating that the officials “reasonably relied on medical staff to provide appropriate care” to Gomes.
James Sotos, an attorney for Lake County, gave the following statement to the Chicago Tribune:
"All of the people who interacted with Ms. Gomes at the Lake County jail were saddened by and remain deeply affected by the very sad and unfortunate circumstances that led to Ms. Gomes's passing. But we are nonetheless gratified that the Court agreed with our contention that none of the Lake County Defendants acted with deliberate indifference to Ms. Gomes's medical needs."
A spokesperson for CCS told BuzzFeed News, "While we appreciate the opportunity to respond to your inquiry, we are unable to comment at this time due to the fact that this very unfortunate circumstance remains in active litigation."
Correct Care Solutions has come under scrutiny for its prisoner healthcare practices stemming from several cases of jailhouse deaths around the country.
The company was dismissed by Lake County in 2014 when another inmate at the jail, Eugene Gruber, died from a spinal injury suffered during an altercation with a corrections officer in a shower. An investigation revealed that a medical staffer allegedly told guards that Gruber was faking the injury.
The county settled a civil lawsuit with the family for $2 million. Correct Care Solutions settled their case with the family for $425,000.
The company is also facing pending litigation in New York for the death of Rashod McNulty, who died in January 2013 while in custody at the Westchester County jail.
McNulty’s family claims that after he complained of chest pains, CCS staff responsible for the jail’s health care mistreated him, thinking he was suffering from indigestion. McNulty died the same day from a heart attack.
In September 2015, the family of David Stojcevski, from Roseville, Michigan, brought a federal lawsuit against CSS, along with the Macomb County jail and the sheriff.
Stojcevski was serving a 30-day jail sentence for a traffic violation and died while going through drug withdrawal.
According to the complaint, the jail’s medical staff failed to provide Stojcevski with medication and left him isolated in a cell for ten days, where he lost 50 pounds. The case is pending and the FBI also opened a federal investigation.
“Anytime when a poor, mentally ill person who dies in jail has a chance to put the people responsible on trial is a big win. I would characterize this as a big win,” said Jan Susler, who is representing Gomes’ family, along with Janine Holt, of the Chicago firm, People's Law Office.
“We feel very confident that a jury will be outraged when they see that these medical professionals allowed this woman to die,” she said.
In the Gomes case, a trial is scheduled for October 2016.