Attorneys for a Billings woman jailed for two days in 2017 say she was severely injured while in custody, medically neglected and left with a brain bleed.
After 45 days in the hospital, Tara Berg-Hernandez was discharged to a guardian and will need assisted living care for the rest of her life, according to the complaint.
Lawyers for Berg-Hernandez say they’re still unclear about how their client received her injuries but were not immediately available to answer further questions.
“She is completely incapacitated,” said attorney Jason Holden, of Great Falls.
Berg-Hernandez filed the lawsuit in Yellowstone County District Court on July 3, but the county has yet to be served, said Kevin Gillen, of the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office.
The county is named in the suit, along with the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, the sheriff’s office, then-captain of the jail Sam Bofto, and Correctional Health Partners, a private company contracted to provide care at the jail.
Berg-Hernandez was arrested on May 22, 2017, on suspicion of four misdemeanors: DUI, resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer and violating a protective order, the complaint states.
At the time of her arrest, Berg-Hernandez “was not confused, had the ability to carry on a sophisticated discussion, and could also make her own decisions,” the lawsuit says.
But when she appeared in Billings Municipal Court the following morning, her court-appointed attorney said she was “not in any condition mentally” to participate in a court proceeding, and the hearing got continued by one day.
Berg-Hernandez could not lift her head or speak coherently, the lawsuit states.
Berg-Hernandez’ attorney emailed the city prosecutor, asking for video footage from the jail that showed his client, saying she had told him the booking officers assaulted her.
No further information was included in the lawsuit regarding Berg-Hernandez' injuries at this point, or their source.
At Berg-Hernandez’ hearing the next day, her court-appointed attorney said his client was not competent to understand the proceedings, the complaint states.
The judge noted that Berg-Hernandez could not speak or lift her head the day before. She said her docket contained a note that Berg-Hernandez had suffered a brain injury, but she did not know where it came from.
At this point, Berg-Hernandez had two black eyes, the complaint states.
A representative from the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office told the judge she believed Berg-Hernandez’ injuries were a result of her resisting arrest and her behavior at the jail, according to the complaint.
The city attorney’s office then notified Bofto, the jail commander, who said the sheriff’s office was launching an internal investigation into the matter.
But Berg-Hernandez, who still couldn’t walk unassisted, lift her head or speak coherently, according to the lawsuit, remained at the jail until an investigator with the sheriff’s office saw her later that day and took her to the emergency department at Billings Clinic.
Clinic staff said the sheriff’s office employee who dropped off Berg-Hernandez told them she had rolled out of a lower bunk onto the floor and hit her face the night before, according to the lawsuit.
Jail staff had called them earlier that day asking what to do for Berg-Hernandez’s deteriorating condition, the lawsuit states. Jailers told the nursing staff she had grown increasingly confused over the past few days.
Berg-Hernandez had swelling and bruises on her eyes and face, shoulder, forearms, tailbone and legs. Doctors determined she had bleeding inside the skull and removed a blood clot after cutting through a portion of the skull.
She was discharged from the hospital after a month and a half, with the hospital recommending inpatient rehabilitation, the lawsuit states.
At the time, Berg-Hernandez had problems with her memory, speech and attention span, and also began having seizures, according to the lawsuit.
Berg-Hernandez is claiming negligence, gross negligence and federal civil rights claims.
She seeks an unspecified amount in damages, including for past and future medical care, punitive damages and attorney fees. Medical expenses have surpassed $200,000, the lawsuit states.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said it was county policy not to comment on pending litigation, referring questions to the county attorney’s office. He declined to say whether anyone had been fired from jail staff as a result of the incident.
Gillen, of the county attorney’s office, did not return a follow-up call seeking clarification.
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