(CN) – A man whose bipolar wife died in jail can sue a Florida sheriff for wrongful death and cruel and unusual punishment after deputies jailed his wife instead of taking her to a mental institution, a federal judge ruled.
On March 16, 2009 Michael DeGraw called the police to help him hospitalize his mentally ill wife, Jennifer DeGraw, who had stopped taking her medication and “had become a danger to herself and others,” according to the federal court ruling in Tampa, Fla.
Officers Brian J. Diebold and Nicholas J. Baez responded to the call, and agreed to involuntarily commit Mrs. Degraw under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows for the “involuntary examination” of people with diagnosed mental illnesses who become a danger to themselves or others.
But when Mrs. DeGraw resisted detention, the officers used their Taser guns on her and arrested her for battery of a police officer. Instead being taken to a hospital, Mrs. DeGraw was jailed, where she remained uncooperative and continued to refuse her medication.
Eight days later, jail staff found Mrs. DeGraw dead in her cell.
Her husband sued the sheriff of Pinellas County, Fla., Jim Coats, along with the two responding officers for false arrest and imprisonment, wrongful death and cruel and unusual punishment.
DeGraw claimed that his wife should not have been arrested, that she didn’t receive adequate medical care at the jail and that the jail’s employees falsified records to show they attempted to give her medication when they did not. He also accused Deputy Patricia Shoberg, who is not named as a defendant, of filling out forms claiming she checked on Mrs. DeGraw every 15 minutes, when video footage from the jail’s security cameras proves otherwise.
The sheriff and deputies filed a motion to dismiss.
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich dismissed the false arrest and false imprisonment claims. The deputies had probable cause to arrest the woman for resisting an officer because her husband agreed that she resisted detention.
“Based on the plain meaning of plaintiff’s complaint,” Judge Kovachevich wrote, “Mrs. DeGraw did indeed resist Deputies Diebold and Baez when they attempted to detain her at Mr. DeGraw’s behest, pursuant to the Baker Act. Thus probable cause existed for the deputies to arrest Mrs. DeGraw, creating an absolute bar to claims for false arrest and imprisonment.
But Judge Kovachevich refused to dismiss the wrongful death claim.
Sheriff Coats argued that the wrongful death claim is invalid because improper medical treatment falls under medical malpractice and sovereign immunity protects police from liability based on decisions like the deputies’ decision to incarcerate, rather than hospitalize, Mrs. DeGraw.
Judge Kovachevich squelched that argument, noting that most of DeGraw’s allegations, such as jail staff’s failure to properly supervise Mrs. DeGraw, were neither medical nor discretionary in nature.
Coats also tried to have the claim for cruel and unusual punishment thrown out, claiming that DeGraw did not identify a breach of municipal policy that caused his wife’s death. And because DeGraw based his claims on one isolated incident, Coats said he could not show a causal relationship between his wife’s death and Coats’ failure to properly train jail staff to administer inmates’ medical treatment.
To separate a finding of cruel and unusual punishment from simple negligence or malpractice, DeGraw had to show “deliberate indifference to the victim’s medical needs,” Judge Kovachevich wrote.
“Deliberate indifference requires (1) subjective knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm, (2) disregard of that risk and (3) conduct that is more than negligence,” the ruling states.
DeGraw satisfied those requirements, Kovachevich wrote. DeGraw claimed that Coats was personally aware of the problems with the jails’ medical care but ignored the issue and allowed the “rationing” of medical care. He also claimed that jail staff were aware of his wife’s medical needs but intentionally ignored them.
And DeGraw’s allegation that jail staff refused to adequately administer his wife’s medications, then falsified records to make it seem like they had, “supports a finding of more than gross negligence,” Kovachevich wrote.