Hours after being booked into the Orangeburg County Detention Center on Nov. 23, 2012, 37-year-old Nathaniel Paul Hearn took his life by hanging himself from a bed sheet in his cell.
Now Hearn’s widow is suing the county and others, claiming the Cordova man’s death could have been avoided. And more lawsuits could follow.
Jenny Hearn’s lawsuit is the, “first of other cases that we anticipate filing against the Orangeburg County Detention Center concerning wrongful deaths of detainees,” said Carter Elliott Jr., her attorney.
By the end of the 2013, a total of six inmates died at the Orangeburg County Detention Center over the course a little more than a year. Three of the deaths, including Hearn’s, were suicides.
Hearn’s lawsuit, filed last month in the Orangeburg County Courthouse, claims “negligent and grossly negligent acts” by a host of defendants – including the county, jail, hospital and doctors – are responsible for the late Hearn’s death.
The plaintiff’s court filings say Hearn was “improperly classified and sent to an unsupervised cell by himself, not on suicide watch.”
Video surveillance showed Hearn’s actions as “confrontational, hostile and uncooperative,” the filings allege.
After Hearn was locked in his cell at 10:48 p.m., “video footage shows a woman walking past the decedent’s door at 10:54 p.m. and 10:58 p.m. without checking his cell. The correctional staff then walked past his door without checking him again at 11 p.m. to 11:41 p.m.,” the court filings claim. It was at 11:41 p.m. that a correctional officer saw Hearn in his cell, “hanging by the very sheet provided to him by the correctional staff.”
Elliott said Hearn wasn’t properly cared for during three separate incarcerations at the jail in 2012, even though he had a known history of mental illness.
Hearn wasn’t provided with proper medical care, although he was examined by physicians and medical staff at the Regional Medical Center during each of his incarcerations, the court filings say.
“The combined failure of all the Defendants to recognize the decedent’s ongoing, emergent and immediate need of medical and mental care on three separate and distinct time periods … was a gross deviation in the acceptable standard of care that contributed directly to the decedent’s pain, suffering and untimely death,” the filings say.
Court records show that Hearn had several run-ins with law in the years leading up to Nov. 23, 2012.
As early as age 16, Hearn was admitted to the Regional Medical Center’s Rose Centre Psychiatric Unit for depression/behavioral problems and Morris Village, a 160-bed inpatient S.C. Department of Mental Health facility, for substance abuse treatment.
Five days prior to his final arrest by the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office, Hearn’s family noticed that his, “mental health deteriorated to a point that no one in his family had ever seen,” records say.
Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said the county intends to, “defend itself against the allegations.”
“On November 23, 2012, while alone in a jail cell, Nathaniel Hearn committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet. The County can confirm that this week it received hundreds of pages written by attorneys trying to make a case as to why 17 others, including Orangeburg County, should be held responsible for Mr. Hearn’s death despite the fact that Mr. Hearn took his own life. The County intends to defend itself against the allegations,” Young told The Times and Democrat in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Robert Horger, attorney for the Regional Medical Center, said, “I cannot offer any comments as RMC does not comment on pending litigation.”
About three months prior to Hearn’s final arrest and booking, Orangeburg County became the sole owner and operator of the Orangeburg County Detention Center. Before that, the county owned and operated the jail in partnership with Calhoun County.
State jail inspectors visited the detention center twice. The first visit was part of the annual jail inspection. Six months later, a follow-up visit was conducted.
By 2013’s end, the county spent approximately $170,000 to bring the 37-year-old detention center into compliance with state standards and provide necessary training to jail staff and employees.
Young said several weeks ago that the county is saving money by being the sole owner and operator of the jail. But he acknowledges that because to the age of the detention center, there will always be some “non-compliant” issues that inspectors will discover.
Neither of the jail inspection reports in 2013 addressed the inmate deaths.
The most recent change at the Orangeburg County Detention Center is health services are now provided by Southern Health Partners, of Nashville, Tenn. Inmates will have access to a nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Southern Health Partners is also providing additional access to mental health services.