UPDATE: The lawsuit was dismissed on June 12, 2020 in federal court.
SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – An inmate died after a Western Tidewater Regional Jail doctor allegedly misdiagnosed a serious medical emergency as a methadone withdrawal, according to court documents.
The inmate complained that his “insides” felt like they were “on fire” and asked to go to the emergency room in the days leading up to his death. Now his family is suing the WTRJ Authority for nearly $10 million, alleging that the jails medical staff and correctional officers were negligent in their care of the man, court documents state.
37-year-old Michael Hoffler died of a perforated gastric ulcer on Oct. 19. Hoffler’s ulcer ruptured, causing a leakage into his abdomen and an infection. The lawsuit, which was filed by his aunt, Blanche Hecker, alleges that Hoffler’s medical condition was urgent, but treatable by surgery.
“Michael’s family is deeply troubled by his treatment at Western Tidewater Regional Jail,” Hecker’s attorney Mark Krudys told 10 On Your Side in an email. “The records that we received from the jail and the medical examiner’s report indicate that Michael was in acute medical distress, but his emergent condition was disregarded. Indeed, a nurse specifically noted that Michael was ‘screaming he needs to go to the ER.’ Had Michael been sent to the ER, he would not have died.”
Records also show that Hoffler was “markedly thin” when he died, weighing 107 pounds — which is 33 pounds less than what he weighed when he checked into the jail just four days before his death.
Hoffler was charged with a felony probation violation and placed into the WTRJ on Oct. 15. An intake medical screening showed he was healthy and didn’t appear to be in distress. Nurses would later report that Hoffler was taking methadone for addiction treatment prior to his arrest, court documents state.
Hoffler began complaining that his “insides” felt like they were “on fire” on the morning of Oct. 17. He told WTRJ correctional officers that he needed help, began kicking and screaming to get attention, and laid on the floor under a surveillance camera screaming for help, court documents allege.
He was seen by jail medical staff around 5 p.m. that day where he complained of pain in his testicles. An opiate withdrawal score sheet was done and a nurse noted that Hoffler was sweating, unable to sit for more than a few seconds, had a runny nose, and was “obviously irritated.” He was “screaming he needs to go to the ER” and told the nurse he was having difficulty breathing, according to court documents.
A nurse gave him a Gatorade and a doctor ordered that he be put in “camera cell” and monitored for withdrawal symptoms. While he was in the cell, medical staff observed him put his fingers down his throat to try and make himself vomit, court documents state.
On Oct. 18 staff found Hoffler in his cell suffering from “excruciating pain” and with a bed sheet tied around the cell gate and loosely around his neck. He was put on suicide watch and seen by medical staff that morning, who noted that he had a high pulse, was sweating, and was still complaining of pain, court documents show.
Hoffler was taken to medical again around 7:20 p.m. to be assessed for pain. He was given a Gatorade and a fruit cup. He continued to complain about his pain and difficulty breathing, and the nurse contacted a jail doctor who said he would examine Hoffler at the night clinic, according to court documents.
Hoffler was returned to his cell, and brought back to medical to bee seen by a doctor around midnight on Oct. 19. The doctor noted that he couldn’t manually take Hoffler’s blood pressure or pulse, and recorded that Hoffler was making several complaints. The doctor determined that Hoffler was dehydrated and “detoxifying from methadone,” court documents show.
The doctor sent Hoffler back to his cell, but ordered him an IV. A nurse tried, unsuccessfully, to give Hoffler the IV around 2:47 a.m., court documents state.
Hoffler was found laying on the floor of his cell, unresponsive, and in his own vomit around 6:36 a.m. on Oct. 19. EMS was called to the jail, and when medics arrived they noted that Hoffler was sitting in a wheelchair with a nurse holding his head up, his eyes were closed, and his skin was a blue-gray color, court documents allege.
Hoffler was pronounced dead about 15 minutes later. Medics would later report that they weren’t given any information about Hoffler’s condition when they were called to the jail, except that he was on suicide watch and might have tried to attempt suicide. EMS also reported that a correctional officer told medics that it looked like Hoffler had fallen and hit his head, according to court documents.
WTRJ Superintendent William Smith said that as of Monday morning, the jail hadn’t been served with the lawsuit. He also said that Hoffler was discovered in “medical distress” around 6:32 a.m. by a jail officer who was doing security rounds.
Smith said that jail staff called EMS and began treating Hoffler. EMS reported that no one was administering CPR to Hoffler when they arrived, according to court documents.
“The medical doctor, if he had recommended he be sent to the hospital, he would have been sent to the hospital,” Smith said.