HELENA — A ruling by the Montana Supreme Court clears the way for a trial alleging negligence on the part of two northern counties a decade after an 18-year-old high school basketball standout died of untreated alcohol withdrawal symptoms while he was jailed in Havre.
The court ruled Tuesday that Hill County could not be held liable for mistakes made by Northern Montana Hospital in failing to properly diagnose and treat A.J. Longsoldier Jr. The hospital settled with Longsoldier's estate in 2011.
His estate is still seeking damages for alleged negligence by employees of both Hill and Blaine counties for failing to recognize his serious medical issue and delaying his treatment, attorney Patrick Flaherty said Thursday.
A hearing date has not been set.
Longsoldier was arrested in November 2009 on alleged violations of his juvenile probation in Blaine County. Blaine County does not have an adult jail and has an agreement with Hill County to hold its inmates. Medical treatment for Blaine County inmates was usually cleared with Blaine County, court records said.
Longsoldier's estate alleges that improper communication, indifference, medical neglect and failing to meet Montana Jail Standards contributed to his death early on Nov. 23, 2009. The standards require jails to have a policy for observation of high risk events, including detoxification.
Longsoldier was a basketball standout from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. As a sophomore, he led Hays-Lodgpole High School to the state Class C championship in March 2007 and was named most valuable player of the state tournament. He was also an alcoholic, court records said.
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He was not intoxicated when he was brought into jail early on Nov. 19, 2009, but about 24 hours later asked to go to the hospital, saying he couldn't hold water down, court records said. He began hallucinating, was talking to himself and to people who weren't there; he wasn't sleeping and hadn't eaten. Logs at the jail indicate jailers believed he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, court records said.
He was taken to the hospital on the evening of Nov. 21, where a doctor failed to diagnose Longsoldier's alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The doctor gave him medication for anxiety and prescribed more, but the hospital didn't send any additional medication with Longsoldier when he was returned to the jail. The prescription was not filled.
Longsoldier's condition continued to deteriorate. Jail staff called dispatchers in Blaine County about six hours later seeking to take him to the hospital again. The dispatcher called the hospital, where a nurse said they could bring him back in for an evaluation, but suggested Longsoldier was “playing them.” The dispatcher told Hill County officials that the nurse said there was nothing the hospital could do, court records said.
Longsoldier was finally taken to the hospital again late on Nov. 22 after he became unresponsive. He died less than three hours later.
Both Hill and Blaine counties argue none of the law enforcement officers involved considered alcohol withdrawal to be a life-threatening condition. Hill County said it relied on information from the doctor that Longsoldier was suffering from anxiety and depression.
Blaine County argues its personnel knew about Longsoldier's history of heavy drinking and had no “inkling” that his withdrawals were any different than those he had suffered as a juvenile in their custody, court records said.
The Montana Supreme Court has ruled Longsoldier's estate did not have a discrimination claim against the counties, but that it could pursue a negligence case.