Record $12.6M jury verdict against San Diego County to be heard by state appeals court

An inmate cell at the Vista Detention Facility has double bunks, toilet, and table bolted into wall
Inmate cell at the Vista Detention Facility, where former inmate David Collins suffered serious brain damage in 2016.
(Charlie Neuman)

It has been 19 months since a jury awarded a North County man more than $12 million after he suffered brain damage following an encounter with sheriff’s deputies.

It was one of the largest verdicts ever rendered against San Diego County.

But even after a judge sliced the damages nearly in half, lawyers for the county continue to challenge the jury findings and deny that deputies and jail medical staff were responsible for the life-altering injuries David Collins suffered back in 2016.

The county’s latest argument will be heard Monday, Feb. 8, by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

“This case cries out for reversal,” the county argued in a recent brief. “Due to instructional errors by the trial court, and a deficient verdict form urged by plaintiff, the jury entered a verdict that was both ambiguous and inconsistent with the law.”

The County Counsel’s Office, which provides legal advice to the Board of Supervisors and defends lawsuits against the county, said too many mistakes were made at the trial to allow the verdict to stand.

“At a minimum, this case should be retried before a properly instructed jury,” the county lawyers wrote.

The plaintiff’s lawyers said the jury was right to award significant damages to their client. As a result of county negligence, they said, Collins will never again be able to live independently and will require medical attention for the rest of his life.

The original jury decision came July 2019, two and a half years after Collins, then a 30-year-old welder who lived in Encinitas, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies and taken to jail rather than to a hospital.

According to court testimony, Collins was suffering from a severe sodium deficiency when he wandered outside his home on Nov. 18, 2016 and was found stumbling on the sidewalk near his home. County lawyers pointed to testimony that Collins had been drinking before he left his house.

Paramedics responding to a passerby’s 911 call were in the process of evaluating Collins when deputies arrived on the scene and intervened, his lawyers wrote in their brief to the appeals court.

“David was asking for medical help,” the brief said. “The deputies pulled David away from the paramedics before they could complete their medical assessment and arrested him for public intoxication.”

Collins was taken to the Vista Detention Facility, where he was placed in a holding cell and was expected to sober up before his release. But he fell and struck his head, suffering a brain bleed.

More than 12 hours passed before a nurse noticed his condition and Collins was transported to Palomar Medical Center, according to trial testimony.

Physicians and nurses at the hospital raised Collins’ sodium level too quickly, and he suffered even more serious damage, according to court records. Collins spent a month in the intensive care unit before moving to an acute rehabilitation center.

Collins sued San Diego County and Palomar Medical Center in 2017, alleging that deputies and the medical staff caused his brain damage.

Palomar agreed to settle the case in 2019, a development the County Counsel’s Office noted when arguing that San Diego County could not reasonably be held liable for the injuries Collins suffered.

“In this litigation, plaintiff alleged negligence by the Palomar doctors, and accepted a settlement of $2,750,000 to resolve those claims,” the county wrote in an appellate brief. “It was the Palomar doctors who ultimately caused plaintiff’s injury.”

The case is important not only because of the accusations against sheriff’s deputies, but also because the county is self-insured. That means any jury award or settlement comes from taxpayers.

The $12.6 million in damages awarded by the Superior Court jury in 2019 included $8 million for Collins’ pain and suffering, almost $4.3 million for his future medical costs and lost earnings, and just over $327,000 in past income and medical bills.

A judge later trimmed the award to $6.4 million based on a determination of shared liability between county defendants.

Before it was cut by nearly half, the original Collins verdict exceeded all judgments and awards against San Diego County over the prior 30 years combined.

Between 1989 and 2019, the county spent $11.8 million on more than 100 jury awards and court judgments, county records show. Those expenses did not include $155 million taxpayers spent to settle approximately 9,000 legal claims against the county over the same period.

In the Collins case, a mediator examined the facts before trial and recommended a $3 million settlement be paid by the county to resolve the legal dispute, the plaintiff’s attorneys said. The Board of Supervisors rejected that determination and approved paying $500,000 to settle the case, but the offer was rejected.

The appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Monday, Feb. 8, and will likely take the matter under submission. A decision is expected to be issued later this year.

— Jeff McDonald is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune