Nuncio v. Webb County
In this lawsuit against Webb County, Texas and jailers at Webb County Jail, we represented Nelda Nuncio, the mother of Luis Alberto “Albert” Barrientos, a 22-year-old who died of a treatable infection while in pre-trial detention at Webb County Jail after his medical needs were ignored for days.
Beginning at least four days before his death, Albert reported to jailers that he was experiencing concerning symptoms of an illness, but they did not provide him with medical care. Testimony from Albert’s cellmates established that in the 2-3 days before his death he was having chest pains, struggling to breathe, coughing up blood, vomiting, unable to eat, and, eventually hallucinating and too weak to move.
Not only should his symptoms have been obvious to the guards who checked on his cell every 15 minutes, but his cellmates also repeatedly told the jailers on each shift that he needed medical attention. Their pleas were ignored, with jailers responding with comments like, “nah, he’s fine,” or “he’s just like that.” It was only when Albert was so gravely ill that he defecated on himself that jailers finally listened to his cellmates and came to escort him to the showers, but they did not provide him medical treatment even after he collapsed to the ground outside his cell. After being forced to stand and walk to the showers, Albert collapsed again, unconscious, and could not be revived.
The medical examiner determined that Albert died of sepsis caused by an untreated infection in his heart and lungs. A medical expert testified that Albert would likely have survived if he received medical attention anytime before the morning of his death.
Sadly, Albert was not the only pre-trial detainee to die at the jail. Less than 24 hours after his death, another inmate in the same cell also died of a medical condition. And Public Justice previously represented the family of Rafael Solis, who was beaten to death by jailers at Webb County Jail in 2009. None of these three men had been convicted of a crime; they simply could not afford bail.
On behalf of Ms. Nuncio and Albert’s Estate, we filed a lawsuit, which was heard in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Laredo. The complaint asserted federal civil rights claims and claims under Texas law against Webb County and the individual jailers for their deliberate indifference to Albert’s medical needs. The Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they were entitled to “qualified immunity” for their actions. The court denied the motion, and the case proceeded to discovery, where we uncovered that Webb County had destroyed key evidence, including videos and observation logs that showed which jailers were responsible for monitoring Albert in the days leading up to his death.
After discovery, the Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that they did not violate Albert’s constitutional rights and were entitled to qualified immunity. Our response explained that Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because the right to adequate medical care for pre-trial detainees was clearly established, and it described the clear evidence and testimony linking individual jailers to the denial of medical care.
Before the court could rule on the motion for summary judgment, the County agreed to settle the case for $1.325 million.