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San Diego County to pay nearly $15M to family of pregnant woman who died in jail 5 years ago

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — San Diego County will pay nearly $15 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a 24-year-old pregnant woman who died in jail after a sheriff’s deputy and a medical worker watched her collapse in a cell five years ago.

The settlement reached Friday night after lengthy negotiations between the county and relatives of Elisa Serna came just weeks before the case was set to go to trial. The deal was confirmed by the judge overseeing the federal lawsuit, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Tuesday.

“The dollar amount doesn’t matter,” said Elisa’s mother, Paloma Serna, who plans to continue to advocate for other men and women in sheriff’s custody. “These things do not change the fact that Elisa is never coming back.”

San Diego County will pay $14 million, while the Coast Correctional Medical Group, which provides medical professionals to treat people in jail, will pay $1 million, the newspaper said.

Earlier this year, the jail nurse who responded to Serna’s collapse was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the November 2019 death at Las Colinas Detention Facility in the San Diego suburb of Santee.

Serna, who was five weeks pregnant, was booked into the jail five days before her death. She was suffering from alcohol and drug withdrawals and had told the jail staff that she had used heroin hours before her arrest, prosecutors said.

When Serna passed out, the nurse failed to check her vital signs and left her on the floor of her cell for about an hour before returning with deputies to begin “futile lifesaving measures,” prosecutors said.

The medical examiner determined that she died from complications of chronic “polysubstance abuse.”

In addition to the $15 million payment, the agreement calls for the sheriff’s department to conduct new training for deputies and jail medical staff.

It also allows the judge to monitor the sheriff’s department’s compliance with its agreement for the next 12 months, the Union-Tribune reported.

Following the settlement, Sheriff Kelly Martinez issued a statement noting she was not in office when Serna died and touting changes she has made since being sworn in last year.

“There have been many changes and an incredible shift in priorities, approach, and processes in our jails since 2019,” Martinez wrote. “As Sheriff I am committed to improving our jail system and ensuring the jails are safe for everyone who is incarcerated and for all our employees.”