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Family Wins Lawsuit Against County After Daughter Dies In Jail From Heroin Withdrawal
"Anyone who looked at her would have known that she was very sick and that she needed attention."
A small Pennsylvania county will pay nearly $5 million to the family of a teenager who collapsed and died after four days of heroin withdrawal in jail. The family's lawyer said jail staff ignored her dire medical needs for days and then lied about it.
Victoria "Tori" Herr, 18, was arrested for the first time on March 27, 2015, after police looking for her boyfriend found drugs in their apartment. Herr told intake staff at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility she used 10 bags of heroin a day, and confided to a cellmate that she feared the withdrawal process would be tough.
She went through severe bouts of vomiting and diarrhea over the next four days, and was given Ensure, water and adult diapers, according to the lawsuit. But she could not keep the fluids down and collapsed of apparent dehydration as she was being brought back to her cell from the medical unit on March 31. She died in a hospital on April 5.
Lawyer Hugh O'Neill, who represents Warden Robert Karnes, two nurses and other jail staff, said no county employees acknowledged any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. "The case was resolved amicably," he said, declining to say this week if the county had reviewed or revised any policies in the wake of Herr's death.
Increasingly, policymakers see jail and prison as an opportune time to intervene and offer medical help for people with opioid addictions.
The Pennsylvania Corrections Department, under Secretary John Wetzel, has started offering methadone and other drugs approved to treat opioid addiction.
"The tide is turning. I think very slowly, but surely, there's a lot of entities that have had to really look in the mirror, and ask how are they dealing with this medical condition," said Steve Seitchik, who runs the Medication Assisted Treatment program in the state prisons.
Nationally, some studies show that about 25 percent of people entering local jails are addicted to opioids, according to Sally Friedman, vice president for legal advocacy of the National Action Center New York-based nonprofit. Only a fraction of the facilities offer medication as part of a treatment plan, but the number is growing, she said.
In Pennsylvania, Wetzel's department now offers grants for county jails to offer medication-assisted treatment as well.
Herr, severely dehydrated, had begged for lemonade in a phone call with her mother on March 30. Stephanie Moyer tried to visit later that day, but was turned away and told her daughter was fine. The next time she saw Herr - who graduated from high school despite her addiction - she was on a ventilator.
After her death, one correctional facility appeared to complain about Herr's death in a Facebook group established to commemorate Herr's life, as noted in a 2016 Broadly report.
Correctional officer Michael Gerstner wrote: "I find this so funny that people want the tax payers to pay for people going through withdraw [sic]in prisons...So, I say let them do there [sic] 'hard' withdraw and spend the money on someone that is gonna appreciate it!!!! You do the crime, it is up to you to do the time!!!!"
Emma Freudenberger, another attorney who represented the family, told Oxygen.com following the lawsuit win that what Herr’s family “was seeking most was answers and accountability, and the settlement speaks volumes in that regard.”
She added that she found some “ incredibly disturbing things through this litigation about the way the jail reacted to Tori Herr’s death.”
She told Oxygen.com that there was no internal investigation of any kind done. The Pennsylvania State Police did a criminal investigation and the jail permitted them to do that, she noted. “But, the warden of the jail admitted in his deposition that he never bothered to even read the report to see what had happened,” she said. “We uncovered a number of striking lies told by the nurses and jail staff about what had happened to cause Tori’s death, and overall, what we uncovered was widespread misconduct and a breakdown of basically every stage and almost every interaction that she had with jail personnel.”
Even more shocking, according to Freudenberger, “ is the fact that these people in charge of running this jail and in charge of protecting the safety of inmates deliberately buried their head in the sand instead of trying to figure out what went wrong and fix it.”
Freudenberger said Herr’s family didn’t care about the money.
“What family members want is they want information about how this happened,” she told Oxygen.com. “To be separated with your loved one and have them die in a jail without you being there and without you knowing what happened is one of the most horrifying things imaginable.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: Associated Press]