The death of an inmate who was incarcerated at Merced County's John Latorraca Correctional Center in 2009 has landed in court.
The family of Derek Armstrong, who was held on violation of probation, claims that medical staff withheld critical treatment from him and correctional staff ignored his harrowing cries for help before he died.
Incident reports from the jail tell another story, showing that Armstrong, 42, became violent toward staff when they tried to help him, preventing them from administering proper treatment.
The lawsuit alleges that the morning before Armstrong was arrested, he was showing symptoms of a sore throat, lost voice, swelling in his throat and drooling, in addition to vomiting blood.
He had visited a medical clinic a few days before.
After his arrest on Sept. 27, 2009, the symptoms remained and he started to have trouble breathing -- a condition that progressively got worse, according to the complaint. He was given some medicine, including liquid Tylenol and Benadryl.
A few hours after the symptoms set in, Armstrong began pacing and flailing his arms while repeatedly screaming, "I can't breathe!" according to the complaint.
"Despite the continuing and worsening nature of his illness and the necessity for breathing treatment in the setting of escalating complaints, plaintiff was not taken to an emergency room of a hospital for imminent and emergency care by defendants," the complaint read.
When Armstrong became agitated because of his distress, two correctional officers put him in a "control hold" and forced him to the ground. An ambulance was called after Armstrong began urinating on himself.
Armstrong stopped breathing before he was brought to the emergency room, according to the complaint. He lapsed into a coma and died Oct. 3, 2009.
Reports from the jail show that staffers weren't indifferent toward Armstrong's needs -- they were blocked from administering proper care because of his violent behavior.
The reports confirm that Armstrong was having difficulty breathing, but also raised his voice and acted out several times as medical staff tried to help.
"Medical staff attempted to examine Armstrong's mouth and throat, however, Armstrong became agitated," according to a Sept. 28, 2009, report from the jail. "Armstrong then jumped up and began moving around in an aggressive manner toward staff."
The Merced County coroner's report labeled the cause of death as natural, and added that Armstrong had been a long-time alcoholic and user of cigarettes and marijuana. The cause of death included inflammation of the windpipe and sore throat.
Roger Matzkind, Merced County's chief civil litigator, said the county hasn't yet been served with the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court Sept. 26.
"We'll be aggressively defending it," he said.
The plaintiffs' Monterey-based attorney couldn't be reached for comment.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.