Sheriff’s Office Pays Settlement in Wrongful Death Suit Over Inmate Death

By Larry Hollis / June 2, 2017
Wrongful Death Suit

In 2009, Jennifer DeGraw was found unresponsive in her prison cell. She 50-year-old woman suffered from mental illness and at the time of her death, she was found lying in a pile of food and feces. Her husband, Michael DeGraw sued the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, claiming they were responsible for the wrongful death of his wife. Now, the case has come to a close with the sheriff’s office paying $1.15 million to DeGraw’s estate.

Current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he inherited the DeGraw lawsuit when he took the job. He believes that the woman should have never been arrested in the first place. Former Sheriff Jim Coats allegedly denied care to DeGraw even after a psychiatrist told police that she was suffering. The woman was documented as bipolar and she had stopped taking her medicine prior to being arrested. During a psychotic episode, she showed up at her husband’s workplace acting manic. Police were called in to help, but instead of taking her to the hospital, they arrested her for kicking a deputy. “From the get-go, it was a calamity,” Gualtieri said.

While the police did have cause to arrest the woman, Gualtieri believes they made a mistake. She needed medical care, but instead was thrown into a jail cell. For eight days, she refused food and medication and eventually died from a heart attack that was caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Attorneys representing her family argued that police violated her constitutional rights by denying her the appropriate medical care.

During the investigation into DeGraw’s death, it was revealed that staff at the jail had notated in records that they checked on her in her cell, but surveillance video showed that they did not. Gualtieri said that appealing a jury verdict would have been more expensive than the settlement so ultimately, they paid out $1.15 million to the woman’s estate. This will also silence pending claims of medical negligence that could have caused more problems for the police department.

Michael DeGraw was pleased with the settlement, although it took five years after his wife’s death to get some resolution. His attorneys reported that the grieving husband was most concerned that police had acted so erroneously and he worries that it could happen again to someone else. Gualtieri said that despite his best efforts, it can be difficult to manage everything that happens in the county jail. With around 1,100 employees and nearly 47,000 arrests every year, it is oftentimes chaotic. However, the new sheriff believes he is doing everything he can to prevent this type of tragedy from reoccurring. “I hope it wouldn’t happen again. I believe we have the right people and procedures to ensure it wouldn’t,” he said.

Family lawTampa wrongful death attorney, Christopher Ligori, said the case is a timely reminder for law enforcement officials. “You just cannot be too careful when dealing with inmates with mental illness. It’s important to protect the rights of inmates at all times and this includes providing access to adequate medical care.”

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Larry Hollis

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