Humboldt County Hit With $2.5 Million Wrongful Death Verdict in Federal Court

The family of a man who died in the Humboldt County Jail in 2014 was awarded $2.5 million in damages by a federal jury in August 2017. The jury found that three corrections officers were negligent in failing to initiate proper screening of the man before placing him in a sobering cell. The county was also to blame for failure to adequately train the officers. It was noted that the officers were not thought to have acted with malice or a conscious disregard for human life. The trial lasted four and a half days. The six man, two woman jury deliberated for 10 hours before delivering their unanimous verdict.

The man who died, Daren Ethan Borges was a 42-year-old homeless man. He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He was arrested on June 13, 2013 for public intoxication in Eureka. Officers first detained him at approximately 2:15 p.m. as he stood at the Seventh and D Street corner. He was booked into jail by 2:40 p.m. He was placed in a sobering cell alone. Officers checked on him at 4:00 p.m. but found him unresponsive. He was rushed to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead approximately 20 minutes later.

The federal civil rights lawsuit was brought by Stephany Borges, the deceased mother. It was filed by Dale Galipo and John Fattahi, two southern California lawyers. The suit originally named the city of Eureka, county of Humboldt, individual officers with both agencies and the California Forensic Medical Group, Inc., which administered medical services at the jail on a contract basis, as defendants. U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, however, dismissed the case against Eureka and its officers. California Forensic Medical Group agreed to settle its portion of the case for $250,000. Humboldt County did not make a settlement offer in the case. Sheriff Mike Downey and four officers were the only defendants left in the suit when it went to court in August.

Galipo argued during closing arguments that the officers were not adequately trained, didn’t follow procedure or policy, and acted negligently by rushing Borges through booking as disoriented and incoherent as he was. He pressed that a registered nurse should have come in to asses him. A nurse could have identified the medical emergency as a methamphetamine overdose and taken life-saving measures.

In the rebuttal by the county’s lawyer, Nancy Delaney, it was said that the officers did everything in their power to correctly carry out their jobs. The county claims Borges was coherent and aware of his environment when he was booked into the jail. It was also noted that while nurse did visit him within 20 minutes of entering his cell, she only made contact through the window and decided there was no cause for alarm. The county assessed the death was unpreventable aside from him not ingesting the drugs in the first place.

The jury disagreed with the counties assessment and found that Tim Hershberger, David Swim, Terri Bittner and Tim Hammer, the four correctional officers involved, had acted negligently and they had improper training. Hershberger, the floor supervisor that day, was found to not have acted negligently. They also rejected a claim that Downey was responsible for knowingly disregarding a training deficiency.

The case is expected to see a mass of post-trial motions. The first of many have already begun in a motion to dismiss the case entirely and a motion to vacate the verdict. The argument being that there is no supporting evidence. The judge made a statement saying the evidence was, in fact, sufficient and any post-trial motions face an up-hill battle. The likelihood of an overturned verdict is very low.

Attorneys Galipo and Fattahi moved to have the county pay their fees and court costs. Attorney fees run very high in wrongful death cases and it is their civil right to request payment for the 30 months the case was in play.

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