The family of a woman who died of dehydration at a South Carolina jail filed a civil lawsuit Thursday against the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that the law enforcement agency is ultimately responsible for the well being of the inmates in its detention facilities.
Joyce Curnell was 50 years old when she died at the Charleston County Jail last summer, after a sheriff’s deputy arrested her at a local hospital on a warrant stemming from unpaid fines in a four-year-old shoplifting case. The woman, who her family’s attorneys said was addicted to alcohol, had sought medical treatment for severe vomiting stemming from a stomach illness.
In a separate notice of claim against the Carolina Center for Occupational Health, the private contractor that provides health care for inmates at the Charleston detention facility, Curnell's attorneys alleged that jail staff failed to provide her with water or other means of rehydration. Instead, the notice of claim states, they gave her a trash bag to hold her vomit because she was “too weak” to go to the bathroom.
The sheriff's office became aware of her outstanding warrant after the victim’s son, Javon Curnell, who is also the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the police department and asked them to arrest his mother at the hospital.
Scott Evans, one of the Curnell family attorneys, told BuzzFeed News that the family made the decision to have their mother arrested on her old shoplifting warrant in an attempt to force her to stop drinking.
“Joyce was living in a house without electricity or water,” Evans said. “The family wanted to have her involuntarily committed for alcohol treatment, but they were told there was nothing they could do.”
By having her taken to jail, Evans said, the family hoped to give Curnell a safe place to “dry out” and get rid of the outstanding warrant that had prevented her from working for several years.
A spokesperson for the Charleston County Sheriff did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment on the civil lawsuit filed Thursday. Earlier in the day, the office released a statement on Curnell's death, saying it "takes the welfare and safety of its inmate population seriously."
The Carolina Center for Occupational Health did not respond to a request for comment.
The warrant that led to Curnell’s arrest stemmed from an incident in 2011, when she admitted to stealing a beer and candy bar from a gas station convenience store. Curnell was not arrested but was given a court summons, according to an incident report prepared by the Charleston County Sheriff and provided to BuzzFeed News.
The court fined Curnell a little under $1,200 for the theft and was given a monthly payment plan, the complaint states, but she quickly lapsed on her payments. In 2012, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Court records state that Curnell was taken by ambulance to Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital on July 21, 2015, after she complained of nausea and vomiting. Emergency room doctors diagnosed her with gastroenteritis — also known as “stomach flu” — and gave her intravenous fluids to keep her hydrated.
It was then that her family decided to call the police and have her arrested in an attempt to get her sober.
Police responded to the hospital around 2 p.m. and brought her to the Charleston County Jail straight from the emergency room. Instead of following the instructions of the hospital doctors, however, the medical staff at the detention center “ignored multiple requests” to treat Curnell, despite the fact that she was “continuously vomiting,” court records state. She was found dead in her cell the next afternoon.
“This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life,” Scott Evans, one of the attorneys for Javon Curnell, said in a statement. “She needed fluids and the attention of a doctor. Not only has nobody been prosecuted in connection with Joyce's death, it does not appear that any employee has even been reprimanded.”
Evans said that he expects to merge the notice of claim against the private medical contractor — a preliminary step required in South Carolina before plaintiffs can file medical malpractice lawsuits — with the civil lawsuit against the Charleston County Sheriff. He also said that he didn’t rule out bringing a federal civil rights claim in the case.