Vermilion Co. Sheriff, deputies, nurse sued over claims of negligence after inmate death

Local News

VERMILION COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — A jail nurse, six deputies, and Vermilion County’s sheriff are listed as defendants in a federal lawsuit that claims they were willfully negligent in preventing an inmate’s death as he suffered from critical medical issues and repeatedly cried out for help.

Court documents filed by Peoria law firm Meyer & Kiss on Feb. 4 in the U.S. Court Central District of Illinois claim that inmate Thomas Dalton experienced serious medical issues for at least eight days before he died.

The filing docket says the Hoopeston man requested medical care from deputies and the nurse several times while in custody but was denied.

He passed away on Feb. 16, just 18 days after he was booked in the Vermilion County Jail. Dalton was in his 30s.

Some of the claims in the lawsuit, filed by Attorney Louis Meyer, assert the jail’s nurse did not examine Dalton after notifying county personnel his stool was bloody, he had trouble breathing, and was going through drug withdrawal.

The docket says Sheriff Pat Hartshorn’s failure to provide close observation and adequate medical care for Dalton was “so grossly substandard, incompetent, and inadequate” that it could be characterized as having provided no care at all.

At one point, the lawsuit states, a county deputy mocked Dalton as he asked for help. His lawyers say the guards told him he could “yell pretty loud for someone who can’t catch their breath.”

When being taken to the jail booking area for a video court appearance, the filing claims Dalton was so weak on the elevator ride that he had to sit on the floor.

Additionally, the deputy and jail guard escorting him had to help him up — and did not make any record of his health troubles to supervisors or medical staff, according to records.

The suit also says the jail has a widespread policy of not calling for emergency medical services at the request of an inmate without supervisor approval.

“The Sheriff’s department keeps track of the number of trips detainees take to outside facilities as they need to stay within their budget,” the docket says.

Another claim made against Hartshorn was that he failed to contract health services in a manner where financial incentives would not interfere with referring inmates for medical care outside of the jail.

In a phone interview, Meyer says Dalton’s case is not the only one he has taken from a family of an inmate that died in the Vermilion County Jail.

He says a case by Jamie Moore’s estate is still pending in court after the man died in 2018.

In the docket, nine other lawsuits filed against Vermilion County are cited as examples of when the department was made aware of misconduct or negligence.

WCIA has reached out to Sheriff Hartshorn for comment. He has not responded.

A timeline of events, all occurring from Jan. – Feb. 2020, are listed from the court filings prepared by Meyer & Kiss:

  • Jan. 30 — Thomas Dalton is booked at the Vermilion County Jail on charges of possession of a controlled substance.
    • His pre-existing medical conditions were noted at intake.
  • Feb. 3 — Dalton is examined by Nurse Shelly Harding, noting his medical problems and medication for drug withdrawal.
  • Feb. 8 — Dalton submits a medical form indicating he had bloody diarrhea and a correctional officer was notified.
  • Feb. 9 — Dalton formally requests urgent care for a “blood issue” and pains covering his chest, stomach, and groin.
  • Feb. 10 — Harding visits Dalton’s cell, refuses to examine him, and tells him he is simply experiencing “drug withdrawal.”
    • Dalton continues to cough and excrete blood until his death.
  • Feb. 11 — Dalton is taken down from the fourth floor of the jail building for a video court appearance. He is so weak he has to sit on the floor and be helped up by several county personnel.
    • There is no record medical staff or supervisors were notified.
  • Feb. 6-16 — Dalton’s medical condition severely deteriorates.
    • He displayed obvious symptoms of serious medical needs
      • Negative changes in his mood, appearance, behavior.
    • He hardly leaves his cell.
    • Wheezes and coughs up blood; blood is still in his stool.
  • Feb. 15 — Dalton again requests medical attention from third shift jail personnel.
    • Three third shift deputies are made aware of his requests for medical attention and his symptoms of breathing issues and coughing up blood.
    • None of the deputies contact medical staff or attempt to get outside help; they ignore Dalton.
    • At 4 a.m. on Feb. 16, his coughing and cries for help wake up other inmates in his housing unit.
    • Two deputies state they will inform their supervisor of his health issues.
    • The two deputies and their supervisor ignore his need for medical attention and fail to get outside help.
  • Feb. 16 — Dalton and other inmates continue to request help for his medical issues.
    • Three deputies show up at 7 a.m. and ignore the requests for help.
    • Deputy James Bianchetta responds to Dalton’s request for help with a sarcastic remark about the definition of congestive heart problems and says he could “yell pretty loud for someone who can’t catch their breath.”
    • At lunch, Dalton is told he would have to wait until Monday, Feb. 17 to see the nurse, despite his pleas for help.
    • The first shift supervisor is informed of Dalton’s medical issues and fails to check on him or get medical assistance.
  • Feb. 16 — An inmate in Dalton’s housing unit fails to lock up in order to get the attention of correction staff.
    • A deputy checks on Dalton, who is now unresponsive and not showing signs of life.
    • The supervisor is notified and emergency medical services are called.
    • Efforts to revive him are not successful. Dalton is pronounced dead.

Vermilion County Coroner Jane McFadden says Dalton’s official cause of death was swelling of the meninges — the protective fluid that covers the spine and brain — and was preceded by hemorrhagic pneumonia.

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