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El Paso County settles jail death lawsuit for $3 million

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- El Paso County and the sheriff’s office agreed to settle a lawsuit Tuesday for $3 million after an inmate in the El Paso County jail died in 2021.

On September 27, 2021, William Johnson died while in the El Paso County jail “as a result of a seizure disorder associated with epilepsy, polypharmacy, and COVID-19,” according to the El Paso County coroner.

In a notice to El Paso County, Johnson’s family said they would be filing a lawsuit because jail officials failed to properly administer Johnson’s required medication.

“From August 31, 2021, until the date of his death, Mr. Johnson received under, over, or no dosage on no less than 13 days, including several consecutive days immediately preceding his death.”

On Tuesday, the El Paso County Commissioners approved a $3 million settlement with the Johnson family — $2.5 million will be paid by the county’s insurance while $500,000 will be paid for by the county.

“They are entering into this agreement for the sole purpose of avoiding the costs of further litigation that would necessarily be paid with taxpayer funds and that would likely to exceed the costs of this General Release.”

This isn’t the only lawsuit the county is facing in regard to a death in the jail. The family of Cristo Canett recently filed a lawsuit with allegations of medical neglect too. According to that complaint, Canett was only in the jail for two days before he died from a perforated ulcer. His family said he never received medical help.

13 Investigates learned that 27 inmates have died in the El Paso County jail since 2018. Three of the deaths were reported as homicides, four as accidents, six as suicides, and fourteen as natural deaths. Both Johnson’s and Canett’s were considered natural deaths.

Those 27 deaths in five years are the most of any jail in the state. Denver has the second most with 23.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office declined an interview but in a statement, it said, “The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mr. William Johnson. We hope this agreement allows the Johnson family to begin their process of healing from their loss.”

As part of the agreement, the Sheriff’s Office agrees to “review and amend its standard operating procedures, regarding the administration of prescription medication to inmates.”

According to the settlement, the jail medical provider, Wellpath, can’t change or withhold an inmate's prescribed medications or doses without consulting the inmate’s prescribing doctor or primary care provider. Also, any changes must be documented in the inmate’s medical records, including the reason for the change.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office continues to deny the allegations made in the lawsuit. According to the agreement, the settlement is not an admission of liability but rather a way to avoid the “extraordinary costs of litigation.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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