Family sues after mother dies in county jail

Goshen. The lawsuit alleges medical malpractice and “deliberate indifference.”

Goshen /
| 05 Jul 2024 | 09:46

The family of former Orange County Jail inmate Niki Capaci is suing the county, the jail’s healthcare company Wellpath, and some of its employees after the 40-year-old mother of seven died while in jail custody last year. The lawsuit accuses the county jail and Wellpath staff of “deliberate indifference to serious medical need” and “medical malpractice,” and alleges that both Wellpath and the county are liable for Capaci’s death.

On May 3, 2023, Capaci was arrested for a probation violation and sent to Orange County Jail. According to the official complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Firm, which is representing the family, Capaci underwent the standard screening process upon her initial intake, including suicide prevention screening, and general health screening. The complaint alleges that Capaci was found to be “in generally good health, with no mobility, respiratory, behavioral, or speech impediment.” However, she did show signs of having multiple injection sites and reported using heroin earlier that day, which resulted in her needing to be monitored for opiate withdrawal symptoms, the complaint further alleged.

Three days later she would be found dead.

Capaci’s story is reminiscent of others we’ve heard during the opioid crisis. She suffered an injury, was legally prescribed painkillers for several years to manage the pain from said injury, but then had her prescriptions stopped by doctors, which led her to find illegal alternatives to alleviate her pain, the family told NPR.

According to the filed complaint, Capaci was placed on “special watch” by Wellpath staff that required her to be physically monitored every 15 minutes for any signs of drug withdrawal, such as sweating, nausea, vomiting, and speech problems. The lawsuit alleges that jail and Wellpath personnel “failed to evaluate” Capaci every 15 minutes as required.

Capaci allegedly visited the jail’s medical department several times during the roughly three days she was in the jail. During an initial visit, Capaci’s medicine administration chart indicated that she was suffering from nausea and vomiting and given the anti-nausea medication meclizine by Wellpath personnel, the complaint claimed. Capaci underwent additional medical screenings the following afternoon and was noted as appearing to be detoxing, which resulted in the administration of an unspecified detox medication, per the court filing.

Later in the day on May 4, Capaci allegedly called her daughter and reported experiencing chest, back, and leg pain, at which time her daughter told Capaci to seek help via the intercom button in her cell. The complaint then claims her daughter overheard someone say, “You’re not dying, stop pressing the button.”

Then on May 5, Wellpath personnel allegedly listed Capaci as having “moderate to severe” withdrawal symptoms, including “constant nausea, frequent dry heaves and vomiting, [and] moderate tremors,” among other symptoms. The lawsuit also alleges that Capaci was given buprenorphine for withdrawal despite telling staff that the drug makes her sick, instead of methadone, which she had previously used.

She went to the medical department again for vomiting and other withdrawal symptoms, and was given additional medications, but by the morning of May 6, she was dead, per the complaint.

According to the family, Capaci’s county-administered autopsy claimed that she died from “acute drug intoxication including fentanyl, para-fluorofentanyl, xylazine, chlordiazepoxide, and diazepam,” but it did not list her as dying in the jail facility.

The family is suing for damages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, wrongful death, economic damages, and other harm “in an amount to be determined at trial,” as well as attorney’s fees and other monetary relief.

This isn’t the only lawsuit against Wellpath, which operates within several correctional facilities across the country. In May of this year, a federal judge based in Pennsylvania allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the company in Luzerne County for an inmate’s death from more than three years ago. The company also has a case against it in Colorado stemming from the suicide death of an 18-year-old inmate in El Paso County Jail. Additionally, a 2019 investigative report by CNN found that the company, formerly called Correct Care Solutions, had been sued for more than 70 inmate deaths between 2014 and 2018.

Wellpath did not respond to a request for comment.

Orange County attorney Richard Golden issued the following statement on behalf of the county: “Orange County disputes the allegations in the Capaci complaint and will vigorously defend the litigation on behalf of the named corrections officer and the County.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Orange County.