California Court of Appeal Upholds Jury Verdict Requiring Police Officers to Seek Medical Treatment for a Detainee who Ingested Methamphetamine

By editor on September 21, 2020

On August 21, 2020, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District issued a decision in Frausto, et al. v. Department of the California Highway Patrol, et al., affirming a jury verdict finding officers were negligent for failing to seek medical treatment for an arrestee who possibly ingested drugs in an attempt to conceal the substance.

In March 2015, California Highway Patrol (“CHP”) officers stopped John Cornejo for a vehicle infraction. Officers observed Cornejo place what resembled a plastic bag in his mouth. The officers told Cornejo that if he mistakenly swallowed drugs, they would request medical attention. Cornejo repeatedly denied medical attention insisting that he swallowed gum, not drugs. He showed no signs of drug intoxication, but officers found a meth pipe in the vehicle.

At jail, Cornejo appeared calm and lucid with no signs of medical distress. He continued to decline medical treatment but was later found in his cell shaking with foam in his mouth. Cornejo died from acute methamphetamine intoxication. No plastic or other foreign material was located in his gastrointestinal tract during autopsy.

Cornejo’s parents brought suit alleging that the officers negligently caused Cornejo’s death when they transported him to jail, instead of a hospital. The trial court did not allow defendants to argue Cornejo’s intentional act of swallowing meth was comparative fault. The jury verdict was in favor of Cornejo’s parents for $827,544 but allocated 22 percent comparative fault to Cornejo.

On appeal, the officers argued that they fulfilled any duty by taking Cornejo to a jail equipped with medical staff on site. Defendants also argued they were not the proximate cause of death. Finally, the officers argued that the trial court erred by ruling the jury could not consider Cornejo’s intentional act of swallowing the meth in allocating comparative fault. The Court of Appeal affirmed the verdict and the trial court’s pre-trial rulings.

The First Appellate District found a special relationship existed because Cornejo was in custody and dependent upon the officers for medical assistance. Moreover, Cornejo was particularly vulnerable because “he could not obtain such assistance without admitting his commission of the crime of possession of a controlled substance.” The Court noted prisoners are both vulnerable and dependent on the officers who detain them.

The Court found that whether the officers should have recognized a need for immediate medical attention and whether the officers were the proximate cause of Cornejo’s death were questions for the jury. The verdict was upheld because the jury had adequate evidence to address each issue. The Court cited the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert who concluded it was more likely than not Cornejo would be alive if the officers had taken him to the hospital rather than jail. Because the officers observed Cornejo put “what looked like a plastic baggie” in his mouth, the Court found there was sufficient evidence to prove Cornejo swallowed drugs.

Lastly, the Court upheld the trial court’s ruling that Cornejo’s negligence in swallowing the drug was not relevant to the officers’ response. His post-ingestion negligence, however, was relevant. Therefore, the Court held the trial court properly excluded evidence of the negligence argument for the initial ingestion.

This decision expands law enforcement’s potential liability following any detention or arrest involving a suspect suffering from drug and/or alcohol intoxication. Police departments should instruct and train officers to seek medical treatment for detainees if there is any reason to believe the suspect has ingested a potentially dangerous amount of drugs or alcohol. Because these interactions are all too common, police departments are encouraged to implement policies that outline a specific procedure for determining whether medical treatment is required. When in doubt, officers should seek medical treatment.

A copy of the opinion can be found here.

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