OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - The family of a man who suffocated to death in an Alameda County Jail last year sued the jail's health contractor and the county for negligence and civil rights violations.
Mario Martinez, 29, died in the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., from a severe nasal obstruction caused by polyps blocking his nasal passages and exacerbated by asthma.
"The polyps were so large they were obviously and visibly, even to untrained, non-physicians simply by looking at decedent's face, blocking decedent's nasal passage," according to the federal complaint from his mother and three young children.
Martinez was being held on attempted murder charges.
"The county expresses its deepest sympathy for the family of Mario Martinez," Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler told Courthouse News. "The county is very concerned any time there's a loss of life in county custody."
According to the family's complaint, Martinez's cellmate alerted jail staff through an intercom on July 15 when he heard Martinez cry out, "I can't breathe!"
Jail staff was slow to respond, and told the cellmate to carry Martinez to the kitchen and lay him on a bench, where he was for several minutes before being taken to the jail yard, according to the complaint.
In the months before Martinez died, an Alameda judge had issued multiple orders mandating that Martinez receive a medical evaluation. But his family says jail doctors never treated Martinez.
The family's attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ziegler said she could not discuss the case. "It's not the county's intent to litigate this case in the media, but in the courtroom," he said.
The lead defendant is Corizon Health, one of the nation's major providers of medical services in jails and prisons.
The Courthouse News database contains more than 956 lawsuits against Corizon since 2011. It provides healthcare services to 429 jails and prisons in 25 states.
The Martinez family says the county continued to work with Corizon despite the company's "significant history of negligence, malpractice, and deliberate indifference in providing and/or failing to provide medical services and care to jail inmates, including jail inmates in Santa Rita Jail, resulting in serious harm or death to inmates requiring medical services and care."
Ziegler, whose office represents only the county and not Corizon or the two doctors named in the lawsuit, said, "The county relies on its medical providers, and as soon as it was realized that Mr. Martinez needed medical attention, those provides were summoned to provide that. We believe the case will bear that out."
She added: "There are inherent risks in medicine. Medicine is not a precise science. The county's goal was to provide adequate and competent care for Mr. Martinez."
Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin said she could not comment on active litigation, though she proceeded to do so, and said that "the media" have repeatedly reported inaccurately on Corizon.
"The care provided to Mr. Martinez and the overall quality of care Corizon Health clinical staff provides to patients at the Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer detention facilities has repeatedly been inaccurately portrayed in the media and we look forward to the opportunity to defend our care," Harbin said in an email.
She added: "As this case progresses, it is important to keep in mind that the coroner did not find Mr. Martinez died from the lack of oxygen delivery. He died because he had mucous plugs in his lungs that blocked the oxygen from getting to the lung tissue, despite the efforts of deputies, Corizon nurses and paramedics to save him.
"Our doctors have offered to meet with Mr. Martinez's family to explain in detail the medical event that occurred and the effort made to save Mr. Martinez but have been rebuffed in favor of pursuing a lawsuit."
Martinez's family seeks punitive damages and an injunction ordering better training for medical professionals dealing with inmates with serious medical needs.
They are represented by Benjamin Nisenbaum with the Law Offices of John Burris in Oakland.
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