County Pays Millions Over Teen's Heroin Withdrawal Death In Jail

By Keri Blakinger 10/29/18

“Anyone who looked at her would have known that she was very sick and that she needed attention,” said the family's lawyer.

judge striking gavel

A Pennsylvania county has agreed to pay nearly $5 million as part of a settlement in the case of a teenager who died in jail after guards ignored her worsening medical condition during four brutal days of heroin withdrawal. 

Despite the costly payout, it’s not clear whether the Lebanon County Correctional Facility death will lead to any policy change—but attorneys say it sends a message that even small lock-ups need to take care of inmates who are physically dependent on drugs.

“The days of viewing people addicted to drugs as junkies unworthy of sympathy and care, are long past,” Jonathan Feinberg, a civil rights attorney representing the family, told the Associated Press. “It’s a very short chain of events that leads to death.”

When 18-year-old Victoria Herr was arrested in March 2015, she had a 10-bag-a-day heroin habit. She’d been picked up when police looking for her boyfriend found drugs in their apartment. It was her first time in jail, and she warned staff about the amount of drugs she’d been doing and told her cellmate she was worried about how bad the withdrawal would be. 

For four days, the teen was vomiting and had diarrhea. But the jail only gave her Ensure, water and adult diapers. She couldn’t keep down any liquids and became severely dehydrated. The day before she collapsed, Herr begged for lemonade during a phone call home to her mother.

“Anyone who looked at her would have known that she was very sick and that she needed attention,” Feinberg said. “There was a complete disregard for her needs, which can only be tied back to the fact that she was addicted to drugs.”

On March 31—four days after her arrest—she collapsed in the jail and was rushed to the hospital. She went into cardiac arrest, according to the Lebanon Daily News, but lingered for days on a ventilator before finally dying on April 5.

The fatality, her lawyers said, could have been prevented if jailers had simply taken her to the hospital sooner for intravenous fluids. 

Although opioid withdrawal does not always lead to death, it can be fatal in cases of severe dehydration. That possibility has prompted some jails to begin offering medications—like buprenorphine—to ease withdrawal, and sometimes continue use for long-term treatment.

Despite the hefty size of the agreed-upon payout in Herr’s case, an attorney for the jailers stressed that no one actually copped to doing anything wrong as any part of the settlement.

“The case was resolved amicably,” the attorney, Hugh O’Neill, told the Associated Press. He declined to say whether the county had changed any policies since the teen’s death. The county administrator, Jamie Wolgemuth, issued a statement to the local news highlighting the fact that state police and the Lehigh County Coroner did not send the case to prosecutors for “further inquiry.”

Regardless, lawyers for Herr’s family framed the settlement as a win for correctional accountability.

“It’s certainly one of the largest settlements in at least the last 10 years involving the death of a prisoner in civil rights litigation,” Feinberg told the Lebanon paper. “When there are breakdowns in the way a prison is run, and when those breakdowns cause harm like the unimaginable harm that was caused to Tori Herr, this suit shows that prisons and staff will be held accountable.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.