San Diego County appeals $12.6M jury verdict even after judge cuts damages nearly in half

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has decided to appeal a $12.6 million jury verdict awarded earlier this year to a North County man who suffered life-altering brain damage while in Sheriff’s Department custody.

The decision to challenge the jury verdict — one of the largest ever issued against San Diego County — came after Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer reduced the award handed down in late July to just over $6.4 million.

The appeal also follows the judge’s denial last month of the county’s motion for a new trial.

The County Counsel’s Office, which defends the county in civil litigation at the direction of elected officials, filed notices of appeal this week in the 2017 case brought by David Collins, a former welder from Encinitas who fell in a jail cell and suffered a brain bleed.

The case is expected to be submitted to the Fourth District Court of Appeals after the holidays.

San Diego County spokesman Michael Workman declined to discuss the county’s legal decisions related to the case.

“We won’t have any comment,” Workman wrote in an email. “But look for our filings, likely January, depending on the court schedule.”

San Diego attorney Robert Vaage, whose firm represents Collins, said jurors made the correct decision in July when they found that sheriff’s deputies and county nurses were responsible for his client’s injuries.

“We don’t think there is a legitimate basis for this appeal,” Vaage said.

Collins was suffering from a severe sodium deficiency three years ago this month when he wandered outside his home and was found stumbling on the street, according to court records and trial testimony.

A passerby called 911 and paramedics responded. Before they completed their evaluation of Collins’ condition, sheriff’s deputies arrived and placed the patient under arrest on suspicion of being drunk in public, records show.

Collins was booked into the Vista jail, where he was expected to sober up and eventually be released. But Collins’ condition did not improve, and at one point he fell in his cell and suffered a brain bleed, court records show.

More than 12 hours passed before a nurse noticed Collins’ condition and he was transported to Palomar Medical Center, the trial testimony established.

Things got worse after Collins arrived at the medical center, records show. Hospital staff raised Collins’ sodium levels too quickly, which exacerbated his condition, the lawsuit says.

Palomar Medical Center was separately sued by Collins and settled that complaint confidentially. Judge Meyer said in his ruling that sliced the jury award that hospital officials had resolved the case for $2.75 million.

Collins, now 32, suffered permanent brain damage that left him unable to hold a job, perform routine tasks or live independently, his lawyers said; it takes Collins 15 minutes to button his shirt, and he will need supervised care and medical attention for the rest of his life.

Collins, who lives with his parents, declined to be interviewed.

County lawyers argued that Collins was responsible for his own injuries.

Workman, the county spokesman, defended the sheriff’s deputies, saying they acted reasonably when they determined that Collins was intoxicated and unable to care for his own safety.

He also defended the medical treatment Collins received from jail nurses.

Workman said previously that Collins had been drinking before his arrest and that the Palomar medical staff mishandled the case.

“Collins’ own actions at home, as well as those of the doctors at the hospital, caused Collins’ injuries — not the actions of the sheriff’s deputies or nurses at the jail,” Workman wrote in an August email.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Justin White in August also defended the deputies who encountered Collins in 2016, saying Collins had spent the previous two to three weeks drinking beer and playing video games in his room and not attending to his basic needs.

“According to a doctor who testified at trial, Mr. Collins’ activity caused a critical electrolyte imbalance resulting in extremely low sodium which manifested itself with symptoms similar to those of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” White said in an August statement.

Neither the judge nor the jury agreed with those assessments.

In his Nov. 5 ruling reducing the jury award, Judge Meyer noted that jurors found two deputies and two nurses were negligent in their treatment of Collins. They also said Collins was negligent but determined that his negligence was not a substantial factor in his injury.

The ruling said deputies Matthew Chavez and David Sanchez were responsible for 16 percent and 14 percent of the damages, respectively, and county nurses Jonathan Symmonds and Roela Carolino were responsible for 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

In total, the revised judgment was calculated at $6,417,990.

Vaage said the county’s appeal may end up costing it more because the eventual payment could increase for every day the case persists due to the 7 percent interest set in state law.

“It will cost San Diego (County) taxpayers about $1,231 a day in interest on the judgment until the appeal is decided,” he said. “If that is a year from now, that is an additional $449,259 in interest alone.”

The Collins case already is one of the most expensive lawsuits to have confronted San Diego County.

According to public records, taxpayers spent a total of $11.8 million on more than 100 legal judgments and damage awards between 1989 and the first half of 2019. Separately, the county paid $155 million to settle almost 9,000 legal claims over those three decades.

Before the Collins case went to trial, Vaage agreed to accept a mediator’s recommendation that the case be settled outside court for $3 million. But county supervisors, acting on advice from County Counsel Thomas Montgomery, rejected that recommendation and instead offered to close the case for $500,000.

San Diego County is self-insured, so whatever amount the government agency eventually pays would come from local taxpayers.

— Jeff McDonald is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune