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San Mateo County pays Woodside equestrian $750K settlement in wrongful arrest lawsuit

Sheriff's Department ignored Odette Riegman's signs of serious illness and left her in a jail cell with no medical attention, suit alleges
San Mateo County Sheriff and Superior Court in Redwood City on Feb 3, 2021.

 Woodside woman who was arrested while suffering a medical emergency that deputies mistook for drug or alcohol impairment has settled her lawsuit against San Mateo County for $750,000, according to an agreement dated Aug. 1.

Odette Monica Riegman, who was 52 at the time, had never been arrested or convicted of any offense prior to being taken into custody by San Mateo County Sheriff's deputies on Dec. 16, 2019. Yet what followed was a series of alleged serious missteps, false assumptions and breaches of department policy that nearly cost her her life, according to the legal complaint filed in the federal U.S. District Court, Northern District of California on Dec. 23, 2020.

Riegman, who is a professional equestrian and trains horses and riders, had been feeling ill for several days. At 10 a.m. on the day of her arrest, she had been driving her car in Woodside when she nearly lost consciousness, lost control of her car, and drove into a steel post, according to the lawsuit.

Four deputies arrived at the scene and found that Riegman had impaired balance and failed to pass a field sobriety test – meaning she couldn't respond in a coordinated fashion to commands such as walking in a straight line. She tested “zero” during three separate Breathalyzer tests administered by deputies, however, indicating she had no alcohol in her system. A deputy found pills and a powder while searching Riegman's car, but a test by another deputy on scene determined the substances were legal antihistamines.

Riegman repeatedly told one of the deputies that she'd had the flu since the previous Friday. She had been taking aspirin and Advil for her symptoms, which included fever. She “just lay in bed for three and a half days” and had “lost muscle tone,” she told the deputy, according to the lawsuit. A check of her heart rate found it was high – 120 – while a normal resting heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute.

But the deputy didn't believe Riegman, despite her repeatedly saying that she was sick.

“I don’t smell alcohol at this time – I do believe that you have something onboard that is affecting your driving. Okay or something else medical, I don’t know,” the deputy allegedly said.

Without further medical evaluation, Riegman was arrested and taken to the County Jail rather than to a hospital and her car was towed, according to the lawsuit, which was amended twice.

Failures at the jail

Staff at the jail also failed to respond to her symptoms and violated jail policy regarding basic medical evaluations.

A close friend of Riegman’s, learning that her car had been towed, repeatedly contacted the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office over the course of at least five hours to inform them that Riegman had been ill for several days and was in need of medical attention. She was told that inmates were held for at least six hours and nothing could be done about it. The county jail had no procedure for documenting telephone contacts from friends or family stating that an inmate was ill, medically at risk, or in need of medical attention. Nor did the jail have any procedure for conveying such information to medical or correctional staff, according to the lawsuit.

When Riegman arrived at the jail, a phlebotomist drew her blood for a drug screening. The laboratory results for the drawn blood subsequently revealed that Riegman’s blood contained neither alcohol nor narcotics, the lawsuit said.

The deputy informed the phlebotomist that Riegman had been ill with the flu for days and Riegman added that she had been “horribly ill,” but she was not medically evaluated, according to the lawsuit.

During fingerprinting, Riegman was unable to stand unsupported, and had to lean on office equipment. She was supposed to be screened by a nurse upon intake into the jail; Correctional Health Services regulations required the arresting officer to provide the medical intake screening nurse with both a verbal account and a written report of observations. None of the arresting deputies provided the information to the medical intake screening nurse, according to the lawsuit.

The same regulation also required the nurse to ask the arresting or transporting officer about the arrestee’s medical complaints, medical conditions and behavior. The nurse didn't make any such inquiries, didn't take her temperature and didn't listen to her lungs with a stethoscope, which are all required under regulation, the lawsuit noted. Yet, despite never performing these procedures, The nurse allegedly falsely recorded a normal temperature and “clear breath sounds” on the medical screening form.

The nurse testified in a deposition that it was a normal procedure at the San Mateo County Jail to remain behind a metal screen throughout the intake examination. Nurses normally omitted listening to the lungs, but they filled out the intake form to indicate they had done so and that the breath sounds were clear. Nurses only listened to the lungs if an arrestee was suffering from asthma or had obvious acute respiratory distress, she said, according to the lawsuit.

But if she had taken Riegman’s temperature, she would have discovered that Riegman had a fever. If she had also listened to her lungs, the nurse would have discovered Riegman had pneumonia and she would have sent Riegman to the hospital instead of into a jail cell, the lawsuit said.

Riegman was instead booked into the jail and put in a regular jail cell without the nurse even checking the boxes on the intake form for poor coordination or drug or alcohol intoxication.

Riegman could have been placed in a sobering cell, which is designed for inmates who are "sobering up" from alcohol or drug intoxication. Inmates there have their health and safety monitored by closed circuit television and receive services from medical and correctional personnel.

A correctional officer checks the sobering cells every 15 minutes to monitor the inmate’s breathing and consciousness. A nurse also checks and speaks to each inmate every hour, provides fluids on a regular basis and records a medical evaluation. If an inmate is not improving in four hours and isn't more alert, taking fluids or responding to questions, a physician is required to immediately evaluate the inmate, the lawsuit noted.

None of these precautions were taken with Riegman, although she was barely able to walk and needed a correctional officer's support, jail video allegedly showed. Hours later, suffering from severe body cramping, she collapsed on the hard cell floor, where she became semi-conscious. At 6:44 p.m. two correctional officers discovered Riegman sprawled on the cell floor, writhing and unable to rise.

They still didn't take her condition seriously, according to the lawsuit.

“You must really like alcohol,” Riegman recalled that one of the officers allegedly said.

Four different officers stood watching Riegman on the floor, but none helped, according to the lawsuit. They didn't call for medical aid. Five minutes after she was first discovered, an arriving deputy sergeant finally helped Riegman up from the floor and, supporting her under her arms, aided her to the nurse's station as she was doubled over.

At the nurse's station, Riegman dropped her head onto the counter. The on-duty nurse did not provide medical care. The “Correctional Health Services Progress Report” at 7:14 p.m. instead stated that Riegman was “answering questions appropriately,” but was in an “altered state.”

The nurse then “medically cleared" Riegman for release.

As Riegman staggered out of her chair, she hit the wall and nearly fell.

Correctional officers also considered that Riegman should undergo a psychiatric evaluation, known as a "5150," and they requested a social worker to evaluate her. When he arrived, however, he was waived away, according to the social worker's notes, the lawsuit said.

Riegman had been in the custody of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office for approximately nine hours by the time of her release. She required two officers to help her stagger to the lobby. Only then did one of the correctional officers belatedly recognize that Riegman was seriously ill and offered to call an ambulance.

Riegman asked to call her friend instead. At that point, she was so ill that she required help telephoning her friend from her own cell phone. She was incoherent and required the assistance of the deputy to talk to her friend, according to the lawsuit.

Her body was nearly 'shutting down'

When Riegman and her friend arrived at the Sequoia Hospital emergency room in Redwood City at approximately 8:30 p.m. she had a 103-degree fever and an elevated respiration rate. She was promptly admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of acute left-sided pneumonia, sepsis, acute hyponatremia (low blood sodium level that causes muscle weakness, cramps, seizures or coma), and acute metabolic encephalopathy, a brain condition causing delirium and confusion.

The doctor told her friend that Riegman was fortunate to reach the hospital when she did, because her body was close to shutting down. She was at risk for coma and even death, the lawsuit said.

Riegman remained hospitalized for eight days. It took six months before Riegman fully recovered her physical strength and mental clarity.

The damage she suffered wasn't only physical, according to the lawsuit. Riegman also found her business was affected. One of her regular clients took her horse out of training with Riegman because she wasn't strong enough to provide the full training required.

The sheriff's office had also publicized Riegman's arrest, damaging her reputation. Although they were aware that Riegman was critically ill and not under the influence of drugs, two days after her release they posted a notice on the internet that Riegman had been booked for driving under the influence.

The notice, published by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 18, 2019, identified Riegman by name, age and city of residence and described the car accident. She "displayed objective signs and symptoms of being under the influence of drugs," it stated.

While Riegman was convalescing, she received a letter in January from a prospective private client in Woodside. The person had planned to hire Riegman to give riding lessons to her two granddaughters but had changed her mind: “[Since news that you were booked on DUI became available online, I cannot risk hiring you. ... I regret we will not be able to have you give our granddaughters riding lessons in the foreseeable future.”

Two weeks later, on Feb. 1, 2020, Riegman received a letter from Woodside Junior Riders, a well-established organization where she applied for head instructor's position at a two-month-long summer session. The position would have paid Riegman approximately $12,000 and would likely lead to obtaining private clients. Riegman was rejected, with the organization noting that although she seemed "highly qualified," two parents said she had a recent DUI arrest.

Riegman also believed that she lost three or four other clients who removed their horses from training with her because of the posting about her arrest, and she had trouble attracting new clients.

The settlement paid Riegman $400,000 on behalf of the county from The Doctor's Company, an insurance firm; the county of San Mateo paid her $56,000 and agreed to pay Riegman's attorney, Violet Elizabeth Grayson, $294,000.

The settlement does not affix blame to the county or any of its individual deputies. It also is not compensation for lost wages. It is compensation for "noneconomic losses," including emotional distress and pain and suffering. The case was officially closed by the court on Sept. 14, 2022.


About the Author: Sue Dremann

Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats.
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