Court Partly Admits Nursing Expert Witness' Assertion that the Nursing Care was Substandard

Court Partly Admits Nursing Expert Witness’ Assertion that the Nursing Care was Substandard

A district judge in Washington ruled that the testimony advanced by an expert on nursing practice was relevant to the Plaintiff’s argument that Chelan County Regional Justice Center’s medical care of inmates is substandard.

Facts of the Case:

Defendant Chelan County Regional Justice Center (“CCRJC”) accepted Blair Nelson into its jail on November 21, 2020. At jail, Blair was suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal. Defendant Licensed Practical Nurse Kami Aldrich attended to her and had to hold her hand so she could get pills into her mouth because she was shaking so much. She was “found” dead in her cell several hours later. 

Plaintiff brought this lawsuit on behalf of Nelson’s estate, contending that Blair’s death was preventable and would not have occurred had she received the constitutional minimum of medical care. She left behind four siblings.

Defendants brought a Motion for Summary Judgment and requested the Court to strike the testimony given by three of the Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses: Dr. Richard Cummins, Dr. Lori Roscoe (PhD), and Catherine Fontenot, prior to considering the Motion for Summary Judgment. 

Emergency Medicine Expert Witness

Richard Cummins is a Washington State licensed medical doctor who is board certified in both internal medicine and emergency medicine. Cummins has been a member of the University of Washington Department of Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine since 1981, when he became an attending physician. He was promoted to full professorship in 1985 where he remained for 28 years until retiring from clinical work in July 2020 to Professor Emeritus. During his tenure at the University of Washington Medical Center, he practiced and taught other physicians in the field of emergency medicine, as well as supervised nurses, medical students, and residents in training. Over the course of his career, Cummins has authored more than 150 articles and book chapters on emergency care, including cardiac care.

Discover more cases with Richard Cummins as an expert witness by ordering his comprehensive Expert Witness Profile report.

Nursing Expert Witness

Lori Roscoe is a Certified Correctional Health Professional and a Certified Correctional Health Professional — Registered Nurse. Roscoe holds a bachelor’s degree in education, a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s degree in public administration with a healthcare concentration, a master’s degree in nursing, a Doctorate Degree in Healthcare Administration, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. She began work in correctional healthcare in 1995 and today is the principal of Correctional HealthCare Consultants LLC and The Correctional Nurse LLC. Roscoe holds an active registered nurse license in the states of Florida, California, Washington, and Georgia, and is licensed as a nurse practitioner in Florida, California, Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky. Over the course of her nearly 30-year career, Roscoe has worked in a variety of correctional center settings relating to healthcare. 

Get in-depth insights into Lori Roscoe’s expert witness experience by requesting her Expert Witness Profile today.

Criminology Expert Witness

Catherine Fontenot is the Director of the Reception and Diagnostic Unit for VitalCore Health Strategies and was retained for her expertise in correctional practice. Fontenot has had a lengthy career in the field of corrections. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in criminal justice in 1992 and has worked in a variety of correctional settings since that time. Fontenot obtained her master’s degree in criminology from Grambling State University in 2006, and became an adjunct professor at various institutions, teaching courses covering Criminal Law, Criminalistics, Emergency Management, Criminology, Juvenile Justice, Corrections Process, Drugs and Substance Abuse, and the Death Penalty. In her current role, Fontenot was hired to streamline the inmate intake process and to implement an evidence-based health and safety classification.

Gain a comprehensive understanding of Catherine Fontenot’s qualifications and casework history with her Expert Witness Profile report.

Discussion by the Court

Defendants took umbrage with all three witnesses’ reference to the September 7, 2021, death of Joseph A. Verville. Verville was booked into CCRJC on September 5, 2021, with noted signs of opioid withdrawal. LPN Aldrich first assessed him for withdrawal and gave detox medications at dinner the following evening, September 6. Surveillance footage showed Verville vomiting at least six times after taking the withdrawal medication, but he was not assessed again by medical staff until he was found dead at 8:50 a.m. on September 7.

After his death, LPN Aldrich was notified of potential discipline on September 27, 2021, and was given a verbal warning on November 23, 2021, after the death of Nelson. Defendants objected to the expert testimony inclusion of Verville’s death as impermissible character evidence.  Plaintiff asserted that each of the expert witnesses can discuss the death of Verville because it established a notice of a pattern of conduct by CCRJC, Director Christopher Sharp, and LPN Aldrich.

Dr. Richard Cummins

Cummins is qualified to give an expert opinion on medical care

Cummins reviewed the entire case file, including medical reports, video footage, discovery related documents, and deposition transcripts. In doing so, he determined that CCRJC has a substandard training program and procedures in place which led to; failure to medically assess Nelson when she was booked into jail, failure to follow the internal alcohol withdrawal policy, and failure to provide a proper level of assessment, monitoring, and care. Cummins determined that had CCRJC rectified any of the failures in care, Nelson would not have died.

Defendants asserted that Cummins was not qualified to give expert testimony on the operations of medical procedures inside a corrections facility because his experience was with emergency departments in hospitals. Defendants also objected to Cummins statements on the basis that he is offering impermissible character evidence in his discussion of LPN Aldrich’s conformity with past negligence, which is inadmissible character evidence. Finally, Defendants argued that Cummins should not be able to opine on causation relating to the practice of jail staff and the death of Nelson.

Despite the fact that Nelson’s death took place in a corrections facility rather than a hospital, the Court found that Cummins had extensive knowledge of treating patients in various stages of medical stability, including alcohol withdrawal, given his career in the emergency department. 

While Cummins is not necessarily familiar with medical practices in a correctional facility, he is familiar with the standard practice regarding medical care for individuals receiving treatment for alcohol withdrawal. As an expert witness, Cummins is permitted to testify on causation. Based on his own medical background and review of the record, the Court held that Cummins’s opinion on the ultimate issue, that Nelson’s death was caused by failure in treatment for alcohol withdrawal syndrome, is permissible.

Cummins’ testimony does not amount to impermissible character evidence

Defendants asserted that Cummins’ testimony amounts to impermissible character evidence, based on his comparison of the facts at hand with the death of Verville.

Defendants asserted that Cummins’ report drew a comparison between Nurse Aldrich’s treatment of Nelson and the treatment of Verville, improperly concluding that Nurse Aldrich had a propensity to behave in a medically negligent manner. 

Plaintiff asserted that a comparison is not offered in violation of Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), but instead is offered to show a pattern of administering lower than the established standard of care to inmates, or lack of knowledge or mistake that a particular mode of operation would result in the death of an inmate under the care of CCRJC.

While this evidence could be construed as character evidence suggesting that jail medical staff may have engaged in substandard care, the Court agrees that evidence of Verville’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, are indicative of lack of mistake or absence of notice. Regardless, under Federal Rule of Evidence 703, a Court is vested with the discretion to allow otherwise inadmissible facts or data if the “probative value in helping the jury evaluate the opinion substantially outweighs their prejudicial effect.”

Though not completely analogous, the inclusion of the similar circumstances surrounding Verville’s death may be indicative of absence of mistake or lack of accident via noncompliance with the internal protocol, which would result in the death of an unmonitored detoxing inmate.

Because Cummins is an expert being offered to opine on the standard of medical care provided by CCRJC and the potential cause of Nelson’s death, the Court declined to strike his expert testimony as it did not amount to impermissible character evidence.

Dr. Lori Roscoe, PhD

Roscoe determined that Nelson received substandard nursing care. As part of her finding, she determined that LPN Aldrich’s administration of 100 milligrams of Librium without consulting a provider was illegal but opines no further on this statement except to state that it deviates from the scope of practice of a licensed practical nurse. She also included Verville’s death in determining that CCRJC has a substandard practice of care based on its failure to take corrective action after Verville’s death.

Defendants asserted that Roscoe’s testimony that LPN Aldrich “illegally” administered Librium without contacting a medical provider should be disregarded pursuant to Rule 401 and 403. Further, Defendants alleged that her discussion of Verville amounted to character evidence and was therefore inadmissible.

As an expert on nursing practice, Roscoe was permitted to opine on whether the standard of care was administered from a nursing perspective. Much like Cummins, the Court found that her discussion on the treatment received by Verville was relevant to Plaintiff’s argument that CCRJC’s medical care of inmates is substandard.

As to her statement that LPN Aldrich’s administration of Librium was illegal, Plaintiff offered additional support that any nurse would understand that they are not permitted to administer the narcotic without first contacting a provider. 

While potentially dangerous, against the stated internal policy, and seemingly in a general lexicon of knowledge that it should not be done, Plaintiff offered no additional information that administering Librium without first contacting a doctor was “illegal.” As such, the Court disregarded the notion that LPN Aldrich’s conduct was “illegal” based on Roscoe’s testimony, because Plaintiff has provided no additional information to support this statement. However, the rest of her report was deemed admissible.

Catherine Fontenot

Fontenot ultimately determined that CCRJC was not proactive in rectifying standards of care that led to the death of Verville, and these gaps in care led to the death of Nelson. 

Defendants’ objected to the inclusion of Fontenot’s testimony because it alleged her testimony was based on medical information, impermissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 based on her background. They also alleged that the language used, and the conclusions drawn ran afoul of the character evidence requirement under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 and 402.

Plaintiff contended that Fontenot’s testimony is not being offered for a medical purpose, but instead is offered to demonstrate best corrections practices against the opinion of Defendants’ expert witness.

The Court determined that no part of Fontenot’s opinion ran afoul of Rule 702. She did not make a medical diagnosis of withdrawal beyond the scope of what would have been asked of officials without a medical background working in the jail and recognized the difference between medical and non-medical staff.

Further, while the language used by Fontenot is passionate at times, it is not excludable under Federal Rule of Evidence 403


With the exception of Roscoe’s reference to the administration of Librium being “illegal,” the Court denied the Defendants’ motion to strike Dr. Richard Cummins, Dr. Lori Roscoe (PhD), and Catherine Fontenot. The Court also denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Key Takeaways:

  • Despite the fact that Nelson’s death took place in a corrections facility rather than a hospital, Richard Cummins had extensive knowledge of treating patients in various stages of medical stability, including alcohol withdrawal, given his career in the emergency department. He is qualified to discuss how and when medication should be administered, and allowed to give his opinion about the initial medical intake and ongoing monitoring of inmates who are under the care of jail medical staff. 
  • Plaintiff offered no additional information that administering Librium without first contacting a doctor is “illegal,” despite it being potentially dangerous and against the stated internal policy. As a result, the Court disregarded the notion that LPN Aldrich’s conduct was “illegal” based on Lori Roscoe’s testimony.
  • As demonstrated both by Defendants’ own expert witness and additional filings, many times jail officials without a formal medical background must nevertheless be able to render rudimentary care, including identifying withdrawal symptoms, and continued monitoring of inmates. The facts of this case demonstrate that in a jail system, staff must work together to keep everyone safe, inmates and each other alike, and as such non-medical staff is asked to do initial medical intake of inmates after hours and provide ongoing monitoring to recognize withdrawal and alert medical staff. In this spirit, no part of Catherine Fontenot’s opinion ran afoul of Rule 702.

Case Details:

Case Caption:Nelson V. Chelan County Et Al
Docket Number:2:22cv308
Court Name:United States District Court, Washington Eastern
Order Date: April 19, 2024


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