New York City

Family of man incarcerated at Rikers who died after botched heart surgery wins $6.1 million jury award

Juan Francisco Hidalgo Flores died at a prison ward at Bellevue Hospital.

Jacob Gris holds his father Juan Francisco Hidalgo Flores's hand on the day of his death, Nov. 16, 2017.

Jacob Gris holds his father Juan Francisco Hidalgo Flores's hand on the day of his death, Nov. 16, 2017. Jacob Gris

A Bronx jury has awarded a record $6.1 million to the family of a man incarcerated at Rikers Island, who died after a botched heart surgery while in Department of Correction custody.

A three week trial in Bronx Supreme Civil Court ended Tuesday with a jury granting the money award to the family of Juan Francisco Hidalgo Flores. It was the largest medical malpractice judgment that resulted in wrongful death made against Correction Health Services, a division of NYC Health + Hospitals.

Attorney Eliot Wolf, who represented the family, said the city refused to settle and forced the family to trial.  Flores died two days after being compassionately released in 2017 following the botched heart surgery while under the care of Correctional Health Services at Bellevue Hospital. He was awaiting trial while held on Rikers Island on drug charges that were later dismissed. “After waiting many years the family of Juan Flores has finally received some justice,'' Wolf said after the verdict. 

Flores required a leg amputation after his limb turned necrotic as a result of the botched heart surgery, which left him with a pierced esophagus that led to systemic failures, according to his family. He also went into cardiac arrest when he was allowed to slip off of the operating table mid-surgery onto an emergency room floor.  His heart had stopped for over eight minutes. ER surgeons who revived him instructed his care team to perform an MRI scan on his heart. However, the scan was never performed, according to the family’s lawyer and Flores’ medical records. 

Francisco Cintron, a member of the jury, said he wasn’t convinced by expert testimony that was brought in by the defense.  “At the end of the day you can send ten thousand specialists to testify, but right is right and wrong is wrong,” he told City & State. “The defense was busy trying to rule out that somebody made a mistake.” 

“You can’t tell me that neglecting to perform the MRI on his heart as was instructed and allowing him to “slip” off the operating table are normal medical protocols,” the juror added.

Flores’ son Jacob Gris did not consider the jury decision a victory for the family.

“What happened to my father, who was perfectly healthy when he was originally  incarcerated, was gruesome,” he said. “They turned him into a rotting corpse and he had to live out the final two months of his life like that.”

Gris noted that his father did not receive his diabetes medication while incarcerated at Rikers, which he believed contributed to his death. “No one ever explained to us what was wrong with him.  They tried to cover up everything.  At every point our father and our family have been disrespected,” he said.

The defense brought in dozens of experts, including Flores’ “interdisciplinary medical team,” which testified that he was ambulatory, feeding himself and bathing himself freely in the hospital after his botched surgery. David Park, a Bellevue Hospital electrophysiologist, who according to Flores’ family had never even attended to him, testified he saw Flores standing often on his one leg at the sink in his hospital room brushing his teeth. Flores had been housed in the hospital prison ward until two days before his death, handcuffed to his bed, according to the family. It is also a Bellevue prison ward protocol.

The prior highest payment for a wrongful death involving a person incarcerated at Rikers, or just after medical release was $5.9 million settlement with the family of Layleen Polanco.  Layleen  experienced an epileptic event and died at the Rose M. Singer Center after being ignored by Correction staff  in June of 2019.

Before that was a settlement of $5.75 million awarded to the family of Bradley Ballard in 2016, after he laid dying in his cell crying for help for seven days but was denied help by Rikers staff two years earlier.

A spokesperson for Correctional Health Services declined to comment on the record jury verdict awarded to Flores’ family. 

New York City has paid out over the past ten years an average of $1,423,416.66 per death of individuals who died while in custody under the Department of Correction, or shortly after medical release to loved ones who have filed wrongful death lawsuits.  According to data obtained under New York’s Freedom of Information Law,  court filings and other sources, the city has paid $64,053,750.00 in settlements to 45 families of people who have died while in Department of Correction custody, or just after being medically or compassionately released from the same custody since 2012.  

Only 74 deaths in DOC custody or after medical release since 2012 have resulted in wrongful death or negligence actions filed in state or federal court by family members and loved ones of the deceased.  Of those court actions only 45 have been settled or disposed of by trial.  The lowest settlements with families who lost loved ones in city jails were: $57,000 to the family of Maria Marrero and $100,000 to the family of Samuel Eddy.  Of the 74 actions brought by families of people who have died while in custody over the past decade that are known, seven have been dismissed because of administrative filing errors.