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Trial set for lawsuit over Winston-Salem inmate's death at the Forsyth County Jail
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Trial set for lawsuit over Winston-Salem inmate's death at the Forsyth County Jail

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Forsyth County Jail's medical provider is scheduled to stand trial in April 2023 over allegations that staff repeatedly ignored a Winston-Salem man's asthma, leading to his death more than three years ago. 

Deshawn Lamont Coley, 39, was one of two Winston-Salem men who died at the Forsyth County Jail in May 2017. Coley died in the early morning hours of May 2, 2017, less than a month after he came into the jail to serve a six-month sentence for driving while impaired. An autopsy said he died as a result of complications from asthma.

On May 26, 2017, another man, Stephen Antwan Patterson, 40, died at the jail.

The two deaths prompted protests outside the jail.

A crowd of protesters walk by the jail while inmates tap on windows near the intersection at Second and Church Streets on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Lee Sanderlin/Journal

The families of both men filed lawsuits. Patterson's lawsuit landed in U.S. District Court and alleged that medical staff neglected to treat his high-blood pressure. That federal lawsuit ended last year with a confidential settlement. Coley's lawsuit, filed by his mother in May 2019 in Forsyth Superior Court, is still pending. 

Both lawsuits were filed against Correct Care Solutions LLC. The company is now known as Wellpath after combining with another company.

Wellpath has faced two other lawsuits over deaths at the Forsyth County Jail, but those have been settled. Wellpath also faces a potential lawsuit in the death of John Neville, a 56-year-old Greensboro man. Neville died on Dec. 4, 2019, of a brain injury that was caused when his heart stopped beating. He asphyxiated while being restrained in what officials call a bent-leg prone restraint position. Five former detention officers and a nurse were charged with involuntary manslaughter in his death. 

In the Coley case, a trial has been tentatively scheduled to begin on April 10, 2023. Over the next two years, attorneys on both sides will conduct depositions, file pre-trial motions and enter into required mediation that could result in a settlement, according to a court order filed on Dec. 31, 2020. 

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Randall J. Phillips, attorney for the plaintiff, and Jennifer B. Milak, attorney for Wellpath, did not return messages seeking comment. 

According to the lawsuit, Coley repeatedly asked for medical treatment concerning his asthma and complained that he did not consistently get access to an inhaler. At one point, he filled out a grievance form in which he said he believed his life was in jeopardy: "I have asked over and over that something be done to no response. My next step is to bring someone of a higher power..."

He told jail staff to call his doctor to explain his condition and repeated his need for steroids, the lawsuit said. 

He also requested emergency medical treatment, but medical staff refused, the lawsuit alleged. 

Coley had a long history of asthma and had been to the emergency rooms of Forsyth Medical Center and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center no less than nine times between mid-October 2016 and April 2017, the lawsuit said. 

But Milak disputed that medical staff was negligent and said that Coley's smoking contributed to his death. She said in court papers that it was not until May 2, 2017, that Coley exhibited any signs that he was in distress. Other times, she said, chest X-rays and oxygen levels were found to be normal. 

She also said that Coley had no active prescriptions and that jail staff never noticed Coley having any difficulty breathing or walking and that he was "alert and oriented."

On May 2, 2017, Coley went into respiratory arrest and became unresponsive on the way to the jail's medical unit. Forsyth County detention officers, paramedics and members of the Winston-Salem Police Department tried to revive Coley, but he was declared dead at 2:43 a.m.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill did not file any criminal charges in the case. 

Forsyth County's contract with Wellpath expires on Sept. 30, LaShanda Millner-Murphy said in an email. Proposals for the jail's medical provider will be accepted on Jan. 29. An assessment team will review the proposals. The assessment team is made up of staff from the sheriff's office, the county's budget and management division, the county's public health department, the Stepping Up program, County Manager Dudley Watts and a graduate student from UNC Greensboro. 

The team's recommendation will be shared with the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in March and commissioners will make a final decision in April. 

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@mhewlettWSJ

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