In light of a series of serious injuries to people held in custody by Santa Clara County and the resulting payouts in the millions of dollars to settle lawsuits, Santa Clara County Supervisors voted on May 16 to require the county counsel to regularly and publicly report when the county settles lawsuits for $1 million or more.
The decision, which also endorsed 16 recommendations from a final report by the Santa Clara County Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM), came after OCLEM investigators found a 2019 in-custody incident involving an inmate, Juan Martin Nuñez, was "inexcusable," "shocking" and "horrific."
Nuñez, then 29, suffered a permanent cervical spine injury, which paralyzed him for life, while in custody in Santa Clara County Jail. County Supervisor Joe Simitian made a referral to his colleagues regarding the report to improve supervision, management and accountability in county jails regarding the treatment of mental illness for inmates in custody and to increase transparency surrounding the use of taxpayer money for settlements, his office stated.
Previously, under existing law, all discussions surrounding lawsuits filed against the county and potential settlements typically occur in closed session, which are not ordinarily open to public discussion and scrutiny.
The county counsel under the supervisors' direction is now required to report quarterly on tort lawsuit settlements of $1 million or more. Tort lawsuits are those in which a plaintiff alleges they have been harmed by the county and are seeking civil or financial redress.
Nuñez was in the custody of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office and Custody Health Services in August 2019 while serving a short misdemeanor sentence, his first encounter with the county jails. He ran head-first into the door of his cell while housed in the Acute Psychiatric Unit of the Main Jail, resulting in a severe spinal injury.
Despite being immobile on the floor in his cell for 24 hours, he didn't receive medical care. Multiple nurses fabricated records detailing checks that did not occur, despite Nuñez's calling for help and screaming in pain. At one point, he was roughly moved from the floor to his bed, although he protested and complained that he was injured and paralyzed. In 2022, the county settled a lawsuit with Nuñez for $7 million.
The Board of Registered Nursing later filed formal accusations against five nurses, one of whom had their license revoked. Two nurses voluntarily surrendered their licenses, and proceedings against two others are still pending, Simitian's office said.
"What happened to Mr. Nuñez is appalling and horrific," Simitian said. "This is ugly stuff, but if you don't honestly confront it, you can't possibly fix it. The report describes the 'abysmal conduct' of the staff involved and says the case should be a wake-up call. It certainly should. The most important thing here is the section on recommendations for the future — that's how we keep people safe, treat them right and avoid costly litigation."
The incident occurred under former Sheriff Laurie Smith, whose office was often criticized for a lack of transparency and the failure of staff to be properly trained, which resulted in multiple county multi-million-dollar settlements due to severe injuries to mentally ill inmates in jail custody.
County Sheriff Robert Jonsen and Dr. Eureka Daye, director of custody health services, both of whom assumed their current posts after the incident took place, addressed the board during Tuesday's meeting. Daye described the behavior of custody health services personnel in Nuñez's case as "egregious" and "blameworthy."
Jonsen said the sheriff's department is working to implement all of the recommendations that apply to his office.
"We are moving forward on every one of them," he told the supervisors.
Simitian said he introduced the referral to increase transparency and promote greater accountability.
"Like any large county government, Santa Clara County sees its fair share of lawsuits. Some are small, but some are large and very serious. When the county pays out millions of dollars of taxpayer money, the public has a right to know what's going on. In the absence of the public knowing about these payouts, there's no accountability in the system," he said.
The incident with Nunez isn't the first big settlement for the county. It paid out $3.6 million for the 2015 murder of county jail inmate Michael Tyree by three correctional officers. In response, Simitian pushed for civilian oversight, which led to the creation of the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring. The oversight agency provides independent monitoring of county corrections and law enforcement.
The county settled a lawsuit with Andrew Hogan for $10 million after he developed permanent and life-altering injuries during 2018 transport to a jail psychiatric unit.
Hogan, who was having a mental health crisis, was left alone during and after an incident in which he repeatedly slammed his head into a metal cage inside the transport van. The supervisors unanimously approved Simitian's 2021 referral to make information about Hogan's case public. Simitian argued that without transparency, there could be no true accountability.
"We really need to sunshine these million-dollar settlements. They reveal a lot. And we can't accept the notion that multi-million-dollar payouts are simply the cost of doing business. I firmly hope that when the public understands the magnitude of these settlements, they will demand better operational controls so these incidents are no longer simply be business as usual," he said.
Read the OCLEM report on the treatment of Juan Martin Nuñez.
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