In Utah, expert witnesses play important roles in the civil court cases that are fought over jail deaths. Who pays for these experts? That depends on if you’re a plaintiff or a defendant.
The Government Indemnity Pool
In the State of Utah, there is a government indemnity pool that pays for civil defense attorneys and expert witnesses when a death occurs in a jail.
The Ogden, Utah-based Standard-Examiner daily newspaper recently took a look at how the government indemnity pool works and how it may cause the government to have an advantage over plaintiffs in civil jail death cases.
Funding the Government Indemnity Pool
The Utah Counties Indemnity Pool was created by the Utah Government as a public agency insurance mutual. The pool allows counties to combine resources to cover legal expenses and other losses. Individual counties pay “law enforcement liability contributions” to this fund each year. For example, thus far in 2020, Box Elder County has paid $125,025 into the fund, Davis County has paid $325,065 into the fund, Morgan County has paid $16,670 into the fund, and Weber County has paid $396,746 into the fund. The amount that each county owes is based upon the total number of law enforcement personnel that it employs.
According to the data that the pool shared with Transparent Utah, the pool paid out more than $2.5 million to cover losses, including settlements, and payments to attorneys in 2019.
Miller and Hayes Deaths
In December 2017, Gregory Leigh Hayes, 33, died of a prescription drug overdose after being booked into the Davis County Jail. His mother, Susan Johnson, filed a wrongful death suit, arguing that the jail should have had him checked by a doctor before putting him in a holding cell.
In December 2016, Heather Miller, 28, died of a severely ruptured spleen after falling from her cell’s top bunk. Her mother, Cynthis Farnham-Stella, sued Davis County for damages and an injunction requiring better medical care for inmates.
Dr. Kennon Tubbs was retained by Davis County as the chief expert witness in both the Miller and Hayes suits. Dr. Tubbs is the contract medical director for 11 county jails in Utah and Wyoming and formerly practiced medicine at the Utah State Prison for 13 years. Dr. Tubbs’ rate sheet indicates that he receives $500 per hour or $3,500 per day for his expert witness fee. Dr. Tubbs’ expert witness fee comes out of the Utah Counties Indemnity Pool.
Less Options for Plaintiffs
Tad Draper, one of the attorneys who is representing the families of Hayes and Miller in their suits, told the Standard that hiring expert witnesses can be more challenging for plaintiffs. He explained that expert witness fees can range from $200 to $500 per hour. Draper said that lawyers will typically front the expense of expert witnesses, and cover those costs if they lose the case. He explained, “In most cases worth pursuing, a lawyer takes the risk,”