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Wrongful death lawsuit against local jail dismissed on technicality

A wrongful death lawsuit against the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail has been dismissed due to a procedural technicality.

Daniel Johnson initially filed the lawsuit in February 2015, alleging that his sister, Donna Johnson, died due to complications caused by not having access to her oxygen tank while incarcerated at the jail.

Donna Johnson had been jailed from May 2011 to May 2012. Prior to her sentence, she had been given an oxygen tank after a stay at the University of Virginia Medical Center. A week after she was released from ACRJ in 2012, her brother said she was again hospitalized and eventually died in January 2013.

“Had she been allowed the medical equipment her doctor at UVa Medical Center gave her, I think her life would have been prolonged,” he said.

The particulars of the case were barely discussed during a hearing Friday in Albemarle County Circuit Court.

James Bowling, an attorney representing ACRJ, argued the case should be dismissed because his client was not properly served within the one year time limit for lawsuits. Even though the lawsuit was initially filed in 2015, Bowling said ACRJ was not served until 2019 — after the suit had been purged earlier in the year for being inactive for three years.

“The facts have become stale through the passage of time through no fault of the ACRJ,” Bowling said.

Johnson, representing himself, said that after he filed the lawsuit in 2015, he had requested to file it without a fee, a request for which a judge required a pleading. Johnson said he provided the pleading and was then unaware whether his complaint actually had been filed.

“It was only when I tried to file a criminal lawsuit in 2017 that I found out the civil lawsuit was pending,” he said.

He claimed he had requested ACRJ be served and did not know why that never happened. He received a letter this year informing him that his civil suit had been purged due to inactivity but that he could refile it, and he did so.

After spending about a half-hour reviewing the initial complaint, as well as the refiled version, Albemarle Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins agreed to dismiss the case.

Higgins said that when reviewing the files she had found no indication that notification services had been requested by Johnson and that the legal standard for due diligence had not been met.

“I know the legal system can often be overwhelming — especially for someone unfamiliar with it — but I cannot find there was devoted and painstaking effort made to notify the defendants,” Higgins said.

After the hearing, Johnson said he planned to appeal the decision, but has had difficulty finding an attorney to represent him and his sister’s family. The lawsuit is a means to seek justice for his sister, he said, and without the aid of an attorney, the path ahead is difficult.

“I’m not sure what happened with the notifications but I can’t make the courts do their job,” he said. “We need closure for Donna and we deserve answers.”

Johnson has 10 days to file an appeal.


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