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Denver Health faces lawsuit over 2022 jailhouse death

Denver Health faces a new civil rights lawsuit over the death of a man in the Downtown Detention Center in 2022, which accuses medical staff of ignoring Leroy “Nicky” Taylor’s pleas for help and worsening symptoms as he grew sicker over several days.

Taylor, 71, died on Feb. 9 last year while serving a 90-day sentence. Among his symptoms before his death, he had nausea and severe diarrhea, and struggled to breathe and could not swallow, according to the lawsuit. Other inmates had to help him use the bathroom in the hours before his death. When a Denver deputy sheriff documented Taylor’s need for medical care the morning of the day he died, he noted Taylor’s hands and feet were blue and he seemed “delirious.”

“Mr. Taylor’s short stay in jail turned into an agonizing, prolonged, and unconstitutional death sentence resulting from the deliberate indifference of individual defendants and Denver Health,” according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Both sheriff department employees and inmates alerted Denver Health employees several times about Taylor’s worsening condition. The lawsuit accuses medical staff of repeatedly sending him back to his cell despite his symptoms, and that Taylor only received anti-nausea medication and Tylenol.

It alleges his medical documentation doesn’t have any record Taylor received “appropriate evaluations or testing” to determine the underlying cause of his illness. Medical staff allegedly did not conduct additional tests or pursue treatment such as IV fluids for his dehydration or oxygen therapy.

A voicemail Taylor left for his public defender on Feb. 7 captured him begging for her to help get him released to see his own doctor, saying he had been sick for 10 days and didn’t feel any better. He promised to finish his sentence afterward.

“I need to get out of here before I die. … I feel like I’m dying in here.”

His attorney filed an emergency motion in court requesting Taylor’s release, according to the lawsuit.

Taylor called his sister the next day, saying he had worsened. He had had diarrhea for 14 hours and couldn’t eat, Taylor told her. When she asked him how his chest felt, he told her: “It’s hurting. Everything is hurting.”

Christopher Gilbert, an attorney for Taylor’s family, said so many people between inmates and guards raised alarms about Taylor’s worsening condition, and he was so visibly sick, that the lack of care he received seems like intentional disregard for Taylor’s distress.

“Stray animals who end up in high kill shelters are treated better and with more dignity than Mr. Taylor,” he said.

Taylor’s sons, Derek Taylor and Shawn Herron, brought the case as heirs to his estate. The lawsuit names Denver Health, Dr. Peter Crum, nurses Melissa Brokaw, Bernice Chavarria Torres, Isaac Karugu and Alice Mukamugemanyi, and unnamed Denver Health employees as John Does 1-20 in their individual and official capacities.

Derek Taylor said he prefers to remember his father as the family’s patriarch they could count on for advice or guidance, and who knew when to be stern and when to show compassion.

He remembered one year when he and his brother threw a party while their parents were out of town and didn’t tell them. It was early December, and when their father found out about the party later, he said no one would get presents for Christmas as a result. But when Christmas morning came, he revealed a bag full of gifts.

“That’s the kind of stuff he did,” Derek Taylor said. “He’ll teach you the lesson, but he wasn’t he wasn’t so strict that he couldn’t see the compassion in the situation as well.”

The lawsuit has claims against each defendant of wrongful death and violation of Taylor’s Eighth Amendment protection against “unnecessary and wanton infliction of harm.” It also alleges Denver Health has unconstitutional policies, customs and practices and failed to properly train and supervise its employees on providing proper medical care to inmates at the detention center.

The case requests compensatory and special damages for Taylor’s estate, citing death, loss of enjoyment of life, relationships and earnings, and pain and suffering.

Taylor’s autopsy attributed his death to “hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease” with pulmonary emphysema and chronic renal failure as contributing factors.

He had tested positive for COVID-19 late in January, but returned to the detention center’s general population by Jan. 29, according to the lawsuit. Fellow inmates first alerted a deputy on Feb. 2 that Taylor was vomiting and having diarrhea in his bed, and Taylor reported to a nurse who examined him he had experienced the symptoms for about two days.

His death prompted three investigations: By the Denver Police Department, Denver Health and the city’s Public Integrity Division, a civilian branch of the Department of Public Safety responsible for internal affairs investigations of the sheriff’s department.

The investigation by the Public Integrity Division found none of the sheriff department employees violated any policies.

A Denver Health spokesperson said in an email Wednesday the agency disputes the allegations, emphasizing the findings of Taylor’s autopsy that he died of natural causes, but declined to comment on any findings of the agency’s investigation.

“We are sorry for the family’s loss,” wrote Jacque Montgomery. “We dispute the allegations made and look forward to the opportunity to address them in court. Denver Health is proud of our 163-year history serving the health care needs of our community.”

Denver Health put nurse Melissa Brokaw on leave after Taylor’s death, and she no longer works for the agency. Sheriff Elias Diggins also revoked her security clearance to the detention facility. But little information has emerged about how those decisions were made. The combination of a limited obligation by Denver Health to produce investigative records under the Colorado Open Records Act, and what those concerned with Taylor’s death say has been too loose of a legal relationship between the agency and the sheriff’s department, have resulted in a foggy picture of how Denver Health made any decisions in the wake of Taylor’s death.

“Every single Denver Health Medical personnel that saw Nicky Taylor and declined to give him medical treatment, or escalate the treatment that they were providing, failed him. Every single one of them is culpable,” said Ciara Anderson, an attorney with the civil rights firm Rathod Mohamedbhai representing Taylor’s family.

A previous records request by The Denver Gazette for any materials Diggins may have received to make his decision revealed only an email confirming her access to sheriff’s department facilities had been revoked.

Derek Taylor said he wants to see transparency improved in the relationship between Denver Health and the sheriff’s department to facilitate better exchange of records and other information, and to make clearer who is responsible for making decisions in any given situation.

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