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Forsyth County Jail's former medical provider disputes John Neville's cause of death.
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Forsyth County Jail's former medical provider disputes John Neville's cause of death.

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In court papers filed Monday, the Forsyth County jail’s former medical provider disputes John Neville’s cause of death, alleging Neville was negligent in his own care. Attorneys for Wellpath LLC also deny that a company nurse, Michelle Heughins, who is facing a charge of involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death, violated any of Wellpath’s policies in treating Neville.

Wellpath LLC is a defendant in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Neville’s son, Sean Neville, on Sept. 28 in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of North Carolina. The lawsuit names as defendants Heughins, 46, and five former detention officers who are also charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 49; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 52; Antonio Maurice Woodley Jr., 27; Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 37; and Christopher Bryan Stamper, 44. Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. and Forsyth County are also being sued.

The lawsuit alleges that Neville’s civil rights were violated in December 2019 when the detention officers and Heughins ignored his medical distress and had him pinned down in a prone position on a mattress in a cell while he yelled out 30 times that he could not breathe. This happened in the early morning hours of Dec. 2, 2019. Neville, 56, of Greensboro, was taken to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on Dec. 4, 2019.

His death prompted local protests and a 49-day occupation of Bailey Park led by Triad Abolition Project. The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners chose a new medical provider, NaphCare Inc., for the jail in May.

Wellpath, and its predecessor, Correct Care Solutions, have been sued several times for deaths of inmates at the Forsyth County Jail.

Most of the defendants in the current case, including Wellpath, filed written answers to the lawsuit on Monday. All denied allegations contained in the lawsuit and some claimed either governmental immunity or qualified immunity from civil liability.

But in a 43-page answer, Wellpath attorneys Rebecca R. Thornton and Jennifer B. Milak responded to specific allegations in the lawsuit. According to the complaint, John Neville told an intake officer that he had asthma, and a form from Wellpath showed that it ordered that Neville be given his inhaler four times a day. The lawsuit said that did not happen.

Thornton and Milak said it was not true that Neville was denied use of an inhaler.

They also dispute the cause of death listed in the autopsy report. According to the autopsy report, Neville died from a brain injury caused when his heart stopped and his brain was deprived of oxygen. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded up, often referred to informally as “hog-tied.”

“It is specifically denied that ‘Final Autopsy Diagnosis’ listed the correct cause of death,” Thornton and Milak said in court papers.

They do admit that the autopsy report identified abrasions and contusions and that it listed “several natural disease processes.” Thornton and Milak do not provide any details on what they believe is Neville’s cause of death.

Thornton and Milak did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

As one of their defenses to the lawsuit, Thornton and Milak list contributory negligence, alleging that Neville “failed to exercise reasonable care for his own health and safety as will be showed in discovery and at the trial of this matter and to the extent this failure was a proximate cause of his outcome.” Contributory negligence is a kind of defense in civil liability cases where it is alleged that a plaintiff failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent injury or death.

Neville was arrested and taken to the Forsyth County Jail on Dec. 1, 2019, charged on an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor assault on a female that came out of Guilford County. Twenty-four hours later, Neville fell from his top bunk, and detention officers found him sweating with vomit on his clothes and blood around his mouth.

The lawsuit said that Neville was considered a special needs inmate due to his asthma but was not immediately taken to the hospital. Detention officers pinned him to the floor while Heughins tried to get a pulse.

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In court papers, Thornton and Milak describe Neville as “combative” when Heughins attempted to provide medical care.

According to the lawsuit, Neville was handcuffed, placed in a restraint chair and taken to a multipurpose room on another floor of the jail. The lawsuit said while in transport, Neville defecated on himself but nothing was done.

In the multipurpose room, Heughins tried to take Neville’s pulse again while Neville was in the restraint chair, with restraints on his ankles and handcuffed behind his back. According to Thornton and Milak, Neville was taken to another cell and placed on his stomach on a mattress for the purpose of further observation.

They said Heughins was not allowed in the cell as detention officers attempted to remove the handcuffs. One handcuff key broke and another handcuff key and a bolt cutter didn’t work. One of the detention officers had to go and get another bolt cutter, which did work.

According to the lawsuit and video, Neville said he could not breathe at least 28 times. The lawsuit said at one point, Roussel told Neville that he was breathing because he could talk.

In his answer, Roussel said he could not recall what he said.

According to Wellpath, once the handcuffs were removed, Heughins came into the room and checked Neville’s pulse before being ordered out of the room. Thornton and Milak said she looked through a window and when she saw that Neville didn’t appear to be breathing, she asked to be let back into the cell and immediately began efforts to save Neville’s life.

Thornton and Milak said “it is specifically denied that Nurse Heughins failed to provide Decedent with appropriate and reasonable medical care.”

“It is further denied that Nurse Heughins placed Decedent in improper restraints that ultimately caused his death,” they write in court papers.

The lawsuit said Heughins surrendered her North Carolina nursing license in January. According to a temporary suspension agreement, the N.C. Board of Nursing found that the alleged conduct in connection with Neville’s death “would endanger the public heath, welfare and safety.” The agreement said Heughins denies the allegations.

Heughins’ attorney has until Dec. 9 to file an answer to the lawsuit. Williams’ attorney, Derek Crump, has not filed a written response to the lawsuit and it is not clear when he will.

In a written answer for Poole, Stamper and Woodley, attorney Patrick Flanagan dealt with a three-day suspension that Poole received on June 26, 2020, the same day Kimbrough first publicly acknowledged Neville’s death. Flanagan said that her suspension had nothing to do with Neville’s death. He does not say why Poole was suspended.

According to records provided by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Poole’s suspension was followed by a 12-month probationary period.

Roussel was placed on administrative leave with pay on June 2, 2020, and Williams was placed on administrative leave with pay on July 2. Christina Howell, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, has said no disciplinary action was taken against any of the detention officers while the State Bureau of Investigation conducted its investigation.

Four of the detention officers were fired on July 7 and Stamper was fired on July 8, the day District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced criminal charges.

All the defendants are out on a $15,000 unsecured bond and are scheduled to appear in Forsyth District Court on Jan. 7. None of them have been indicted, which would send the case to Forsyth Superior Court, where either a trial date would be set or a plea deal negotiated.

The lawsuit is asking for about $300,000 in compensatory damages and an unknown amount of punitive damages. A trial date has not been set for the lawsuit.

336-727-7326

@mhewlettWSJ

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