OAKLAND -- In an emotional news conference on the courthouse steps, the family of a Hayward man who died from an asthma attack in Santa Rita Jail this summer announced on Tuesday it was filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and the jail's health care provider.
The family's attorney, John Burris, said that the death of Mario Martinez, 29, was caused by maltreatment he received from prison health care provider Corizon, specifically that he had not received court-ordered care for nasal polyps.
He also alleged that the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, named in the suit, should have placed Martinez in a medical unit instead of in general population.
"Reasonable medical care could have been easily administered that would have saved this man's life," Burris said.
Martinez died on July 15, collapsing minutes after crying, "I can't breathe" in his cell, according to the complaint.
His cellmate pressed an emergency call button that summoned medical personnel, who took Martinez into the yard, where he died.
Burris said Martinez, who had been in jail on an attempted murder charge, had "outrageously large" nasal polyps that affected his breathing.
His condition was so severe that, according to the complaint, a judge issued an order for a medical evaluation on March 23.
When that went unheeded, the court issued a second order on April 13.
Burris said he believes the death is an example of systemic problems with Corizon's level of care.
Martha Harbin, a spokeswoman for Corizon, denied that claim.
"The care provided to Mr. Martinez and the overall quality of care Corizon Health clinical staff provides to patients at the Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer detention facilities has repeatedly been inaccurately portrayed in the media, and we look forward to the opportunity to defend our care," Harbin said.
The private health care company has a checkered past and has been sued hundreds of times across the country for poor care.
It was booted out of New York's Rikers Island facility last year after an investigation revealed that errors by employees may have contributed to problems ranging from inmate deaths to hiring staff members with violent criminal convictions.
The company, along with the Sheriff's Office, entered into an $8.3 million settlement last year after the children of Martin Harrison filed suit alleging their father wouldn't have died during a confrontation with prison guards if nurses had realized he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal during his intake screening.
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson said at the time of Martinez's death that within three minutes of when Martinez's cellmate pressed the emergency call button, a nurse was on the scene and guided Martinez to an open-air area.
Martinez's mother, Tanti Martinez, said she was "beyond broken" by her son's death.
"Yes, you are incarcerated, but that doesn't mean you should die in jail," she said.
Mario Martinez is survived by three children, ages 9 months, 8 and 15.
A number of his friends and family members attended the news conference, at one point unfurling a large banner with Martinez's picture.
Corizon has an eight-year contract with the county worth about $250 million, which is set to expire this year.
Burris said the responsibility for Martinez's death falls not just on the health care provider and the jail, but also on the Board of Supervisors, which approves Corizon's contract.
"The Board of Supervisors shouldn't stand for it," Burris said. "They have the power of the purse."
Contact Dan Lawton at 408-921-8695. Follow him at Twitter.com/dlawton.