Deputies Left Asthmatic Inmate to Die: Lawsuit

A North County family is going to trial Tuesday to accuse Vista Detention Facility staff of walking by and ignoring calls for help as their 21-year-old son slowly died from asthma asphyxiation.

The lawsuit against the county of San Diego, which will be heard in federal court, centers on Cardiff by the Sea resident Daniel Sisson, a heroin addict on probation who was booked into jail for possession of a controlled substance in June 2011.

His family says his dependence on the drug grew from a painful arthritic disease called Rider’s syndrome.

As he sat in a jail cell, Sisson suffered an asthma attack as he started going through a withdrawal.

In the complaint, his parents say San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies disregarded Sisson’s failure to appear at sick calls and ignored his cell mate’s protestations that “resorted to the posting of written pleas for help.”

Without medical attention, Sisson died from asphyxia due to asthma, a condition the lawsuit says is a slow, agonizing way to die, akin to drowning.

The suspect had been dead for at least three hours by the time deputies conducted a welfare check on him, the lawsuit alleges.

In court Tuesday, the family’s attorney Chris Morris plans to show a video that he says shows deputies walking by Sisson’s cell.

“When deputy did their checks, they did little if any actual monitoring,” said Morris. “They simply walked by and it was a cursory glance. They didn’t break stride and they kept going.”

The attorney said under California Corrections Standards Authority policies, when an addicted inmate comes into custody, law enforcement has an obligation to monitor signs, symptoms and complications of withdrawal, placing the inmate in a “sober cell” where they are checked on at least every hour.

Although they knew he was a chronic asthmatic, staff left Sisson unsupervised in a general population cell without mandated checks, the complaint says.

His parents say had deputies looked in on him, they would easily have been able to treat his asthma and prevent his death.

“The family hopes to accomplish that this doesn’t happen to anyone else again,” said Morris, “that what happens out of this case, that the sheriff’s (department) fulfills its duty to monitor their inmates under their custody and care.”

The lawsuit for an unspecified amount of money accuses the county and sheriff’s department of cruel and unusual punishment, deprivation of life without due process, negligence, failure to summon medical care, wrongful death, deprivation of familial relationships and negligent supervision, training, hiring and retention.

NBC 7 reached out the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for a comment. Since the case is going to trial, the spokeswoman said they cannot make any statement.

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