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Hill County Cites Havre Hospital’s ‘Medical Negligence’ In Longsoldier Lawsuit

Northern Montana Hospital is responsible for the medical malpractice that led to A.J. Longsoldier’s death, not the taxpayers of Hill County. That is the county’s contention, expressed by the Montana Association of Counties, in a legal brief filed with the Montana Supreme Court late Thursday.

Longsoldier, once an all-state basketball player for Hays Lodge Pole High School, died of alcohol withdrawal syndrome while incarcerated in the Hill County Correctional Facility on relatively minor matters in November 2009.

In the newly filed brief, MACo attorney Maureen H. Lennon contended that “Montana jails do not have a non-delegable duty to ensure inmates are not subjected to medical negligence by independent healthcare providers where the jails have not contracted with and have no control over the provider.”

Holding the county responsible for the hospital’s mistakes would be like holding someone responsible if they brought a friend to the hospital and the emergency room misdiagnosed him, Lennon wrote.

MACo’s brief asked the Supreme Court to overturn a district court ruling that Hill County pay $1.35 million to the estate for its role in Longsoldier’s death.

In their legal filings, Longsoldier’s estate contended that the county was partially responsible because there was a contract between the hospital and the county, even if it was an implied contract.

Lennon said the county has a policy stating that sick or injured inmates will be taken Northern Montana Hospital, but there is no contract. She said it was doubtful the hospital even knew about the policy.

According to earlier legal papers, the hospital and the state have settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Northern Montana Hospital in Havre (Herald file photo)

A representative from the hospital said the hospital had no comment.

According to the estate’s legal briefs, Longsoldier was suffering from delusions due to alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Blaine County sheriff’s deputies, who had taken Longsoldier into custody, were summoned. They called Indian Health Services, asking if Longsoldier should be taken to Northern Montana Hospital or the medical facility at Fort Belknap, Longsoldier’s home. IHS advised taking him to the Havre hospital. 

When he was transported to the Northern Montana emergency room, Longsoldier was apparently misdiagnosed as having depression. He was given medication and returned to jail.

But as the evening went on, it appeared the medication had no effect on Longsoldier. Staffers at the jail called the emergency room, where a nurse told him that Longsoldier was “playing with them” because he didn’t want to be in jail.

Finally, the jail staff summoned an ambulance, which took him to the hospital’s emergency room. He died shortly thereafter.

Read more about this case: Montana Supreme Court To Hear Longsoldier Case

The estate filed a lawsuit asking that the county as well as the hospital be held responsible.

For nearly a decade, the case bounced around between the Montana Human Rights Commission staff, the full commission, two Montana district courts and finally the Montana Supreme Court.

In the most recent ruling, Cascade County District Judge Dirk Sandefur ruled for the estate, holding the county partially responsible.

In her appeal, Lennon asked that the Supreme Court overturn the lower court’s ruling.

“Hill County is not a health care provider,” Lennon wrote. “Its duty is to obtain necessary medical care for inmates, not to practice medicine or provide malpractice coverage for those licensed to do so.”

“The lower court’s ruling to the contrary is illogical, impractical, and grossly irresponsible,” she wrote, asking the Supreme Court to overturn Sandefur’s decision.

Sandefur is now one of the seven members on the high court. He is expected to recuse himself in the case.

The court will now decide if it will hear oral arguments, when attorneys for both sides are called to a hearing where justices can ask them questions, or whether it will decide based on the submitted legal briefs.

Email John Kelleher at (406) 262-7778
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