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The family of a man incarcerated in San Diego who died from COVID-19 has reportedly filed a wrongful death claim against the California corrections department. Submitted to the Office of Insurance and Risk Management last month, the claim is a precursor to filing a lawsuit against the state for its role in Leon Martinez’s death. At 48, he was the youngest of 18 Donovan inmates to die from the virus.
Martinez died amid a massive winter outbreak at Donovan prison that resulted in 700 infections, 18 inmate deaths, and one staff death. Statewide, nearly 50,000 California prisoners have contracted the virus, with more than 200 dead.
Incarcerated people reportedly have higher rates of pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. Not to mention the virus spreads quickly once it’s inside jails and prisons. More than 1,000 prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The Martinez family’s wrongful death claim is the first filed against this particular San Diego prison known so far. It is also one of seven that have been filed across the state prison system.
Martinez’s wife and three children allege staff refused to wear masks or engage in social distancing, leading him to contract COVID-19. The claim reportedly states that once he was sick, he was not given the medical care he needed. It also described that Donovan inmates with COVID-19 were kept in close quarters with those who were not infected — something that prison officials have already acknowledged took place during a winter outbreak.
Hospital records show Martinez had many underlying medical conditions that can increase the chances of COVID-19 complications, including asthma, hepatitis C, uncontrolled diabetes, seizure disorder, and anemia. Evangelina Garcia, Martinez’s wife, reportedly said the prison should have identified him as high-risk when the pandemic began and moved him to a clean and secure housing area where he would not have contracted the virus. The corrections department has previously defended its response to the pandemic, pointing to vastly reduced infection rates in state prisons, saying it takes the health and safety of its residents seriously.
Martinez was serving a sentence of 28 years to life in prison at the correctional facility in Otay Mesa for his role in a high-profile cold case murder. His children were reportedly looking forward to his possible release from prison in 2029.
Few COVID-19 wrongful death cases have been brought so far against the California corrections department. The family of San Quentin inmate Daniel Ruiz sued the prison system in federal court in Mar., alleging a botched transfer of inmates from another state prison led to widespread infections and Ruiz’s death.
Of the seven known COVID-19 wrongful death claims against the state prison system, the Martinez family’s claim is the only one still under review. Five others have already been rejected by the risk management office, and one was incomplete. If the Martinez family’s claim is rejected, they can sue.
Bringing a lawsuit against the California government is a long process that takes many years, and has only grown even longer during the pandemic. The statute of limitations for these types of cases is two years, but because of the state’s COVID-19 executive order, the period to file a wrongful death claim has been extended to one year, and the office has about six months to review it.