On July 22, a day after she was arrested at a hospital for failing to pay court fines, Joyce Curnell, 50, of Edisto Island, South Carolina, was found dead at the Charleston County jail “because she was deprived of water,” her family alleges.
Curnell was being treated for a stomach illness at Roper Hospital when she was arrested on an outstanding bench warrant related to a shoplifting charge from 2011. Detention officers found Curnell unresponsive while making security rounds in their assigned housing unit, and she was pronounced dead at the scene. From the Charleston Post & Courier:
She spent the last 27 hours of her life behind bars. During that time she became too sick to eat or call for help, according to court documents filed this week. She vomited all night and couldn’t make it to a bathroom, so jailers gave her a trash bag. Some medical staffers ignored the jail officials’ requests to tend to her, the documents alleged.
Curnell’s family filed a notice Wednesday to sue the jail’s medical contractor, Carolina Center for Occupational Health, for malpractice. Unless a settlement is reached, a lawsuit likely will follow. The filing cited expert opinion from a local doctor, who said Curnell’s death “more likely than not” would have been prevented if she had been properly treated for gastroenteritis and dehydration.
The family attorney, James Moore III, said in a statement that her death resulted from a “deliberate failure.” While a suit in state court is planned, Moore said one in federal court could follow.
A copy of the filing is available here. In an affidavit, Maria Gibson, a Medical University Hospital doctor serving as an expert witness for the Curnell family, blames “a series of conscious violations.”
According to the Post & Courier, Curnell had been on a payment plan since April 2012 to cover the $1,148.90 in fines related to the 2011 shoplifting charge, but she stopped paying the following January. A bench warrant was issued in August 2014, after she did not respond to a letter from the court.
It is unclear, the Post & Courier reports, how, when, or why law enforcement was made aware that there was a warrant out for Curnell’s arrest as she lay in a hospital being treated for gastroenteritis.
In a statement Wednesday, one of the family’s attorneys, James Moore, said, “It is incomprehensible that in the year 2015, in the United States of America, we have members of our community suffering and dying from thirst and dehydration...Providing access to reasonable medical care to those under police custody is a necessity, not a privilege. It is a Constitutional right.”
Another attorney, Scott Evans, added: “This is not a situation in which Joyce needed access to cutting edge medical care to save her life. 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.”