October 26, 2022

Article at San Diego Union-Tribune

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Doctor charged in woman’s 2019 jail death, accused of neglecting her when critically ill

Dr. Fredericke Von Lintig (left) and her attorney Dana Grimes appear in court at the El Cajon courthouse.
Dr. Fredericke Von Lintig, left, and her attorney Dana Grimes appear in court at the El Cajon courthouse on Wednesday. Von Lintig was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Elisa Serna.

A doctor accused of neglecting a critically ill young woman incarcerated in the Las Colinas jail was charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter.

Dr. Friederike Von Lintig, 57, pleaded not guilty in connection with the death of Elisa Serna, the 24-year-old who died on Nov. 11, 2019, at the women’s jail in Santee. Von Lintig, who worked for the jail under a contract with Coastal Hospitalist Medical Associates, was the physician on duty that day.

She faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

Elisa Serna's family members (from left) Star Serna, Michael Serna, Paloma Serna, and Deana Serna speak to the press.
Elisa Serna’s family members — from left, Star Serna, Michael Serna, Paloma Serna and Deana Serna —speak to the press at the El Cajon courthouse on Wednesday.

Serna was booked into jail on Nov. 6, 2019, for drug possession. Her family said she had struggled with heroin addiction but was trying to pull her life together.

Michael Serna, Elisa’s father, described his daughter as a “smart, beautiful girl.”

“She died in a very inhumane way,” he said. “Nobody should die in such a manner.”

In the family’s lawsuit against the county, the Sernas argue that Von Lintig and nurse Danalee Pascual, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter in Elisa Serna’s death last November, ignored obvious signs that the young woman was seriously ill.

In a note in Serna’s medical chart several hours before her death, quoted in the lawsuit, Von Lintig accused the young woman of faking her illness, writing, “fainting spell: doubt true seizure and suspect second (sic) gain.”

“Secondary gain” is used in medicine to refer to patients who are suspected of making up symptoms for attention or some other benefit.

“She based this on nothing,” the lawsuit says. “Von Lintig took no vitals and conducted no examination. She ran no blood tests.”

That evening at around 7 p.m., Pascua and a deputy witnessed Serna have a seizure and fall to the floor, hitting her head on the cell wall.

Pascua and the deputy left Serna in her cell and did not summon help.

“For an hour, no one came to the cell,” the lawsuit says. “During this time, Elisa can be seen on the video monitors dying and urinating on herself. … No one monitored Elisa despite the fact that she had been placed in the medical observation unit. Elisa Serna died on the floor of her jail cell.”

No charges have been filed against the deputy, but in February 2021, the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which provides oversight of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, found that the deputy who accompanied the nurse violated department policy by failing to recognize and respond to Serna’s medical needs.

Serna was one of 16 people who died in San Diego jail custody in 2019. Eighteen people have died so far this year, tying 2021’s record 18 deaths; a 19th was granted a compassionate release from custody hours before he died earlier this year in the hospital.

The Sheriff’s Department and the county have been grappling with how to address the spate of deaths. A harshly critical state audit released earlier this year found that San Diego County had the highest jail mortality rate among large California counties.

The District Attorney’s Office decided to file charges against Von Lintig after the state medical board had an expert review the case, said Deputy District Attorney John Dunlap. He said he could not elaborate on those findings.

“We charge people when we believe we can prove crimes beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

The medical board’s website shows that Von Lintig is still licensed to practice medicine in California and has no history of discipline.

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said it supported the district attorney’s decision to file charges against Von Lintig.

“The Sheriff’s Department is committed to providing compassionate medical services for the safety, health and well-being of everyone entrusted in our care,” the statement said. “We have and will continue to follow strict protocols for investigating and responding to allegations of misconduct.”

Von Lintig did not speak at the hearing, saying only that she understood the charges. Afterward, upon noticing the Serna family in the courtroom, she offered a gentle smile and wave.

Von Lintig’s license to practice medicine is current, and there have been no disciplinary actions against her.

The Serna family said they have gotten to know at least eight other families who have recently lost a loved one in a San Diego jail. Paloma Serna, Elisa’s mother, said the families have become a source of support for each other.

“It gets my mind off of my own case,” she said. “I’m glad we can be part of other people’s lives.”

Pascua’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday. A preliminary hearing for Von Lintig is set for March 29, 2023.