Lee Sheriff Settles Wrongful Death Lawsuit by Pepper Sprayed Widow

The widow of a mentally ill Ohio man who died after he was repeatedly pepper sprayed in the Lee County Jail has settled her wrongful death lawsuit against Sheriff Mike Scott, the jail’s medical provider, and several deputies and nurses.

Twenty individuals are named in the suit, filed in federal court in Fort Myers, including Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott and the director of Prison Health Services, the jail medical provider.

Joyce Christie’s settlement involving the 2009 death of her 62-year-old husband, Nicholas, came after almost a five-hour settlement conference Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell.

The 59-page complaint filed by Joyce Christie of Girard, Ohio, contends her husband’s civil rights were violated through their “acts, failures to act, and omissions committed, and policies, procedures, and customs in place.” The defendants used excessive force that showed “deliberate indifference” and “callous disregard” for her husband’s welfare, the lawsuit asserts.

The lawsuit requests an unnamed amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and it asks the court to curtail jail practices that resulted in the death, as well as force better care of inmates from medical contractor Prison Health Services.

The confidential settlement did not include an agreement to change policies and procedures at the jail, it was reported. But why would they continue to risk another lawsuit like this?

Although the Lee sheriff’s portion of the settlement eventually will become public, sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Larry King said it still must go through Ohio probate court and it could take 90 days to be disposed of in federal court.

Attorneys for the sheriff, Prison Health Services, deputies and nurses could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The retired boilermaker died from cardiac arrest on May 31, 2009, after he was exposed to pepper spray 10 times in 43 hours while an inmate and pleaded for mercy, saying he couldn’t breathe. He was naked and deprived of water and toileting.

Christie came to Florida to visit her brother in Naples and had stopped taking his medications, causing him to act erratically. He was asked to leave his brother’s home and ended up at a North Fort Myers motel, where he was arrested on trespassing charges.

The settlement came as the case was to head to trial next month, following a 35-page ruling in January that denied the majority of defense attempts to dismiss many of the claims. Last week, the deputies appealed that ruling.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Christie could move forward with excessive force, assault and battery claims against deputies Daniel Falzone, Kurtis Calhoun, Dathan Pyle, Sgt. Mary DaRoss and nurses Maria Canete, Linda Sundo and Joan Winnie.

The judge refused to drop claims of assault and battery, failure to train, and negligent hiring, retention and supervision against the sheriff. He also allowed claims of deliberate indifference against the deputies and nurses, and let Christie proceed with medical negligence claims and allegations that Prison Health Services and Scott had a policy or custom of similar acts.

“Christie was pepper-sprayed repeatedly, even after he was placed in a restraint chair,” Magnuson wrote, noting that there was no evidence of Christie being violent, except for grabbing someone’s hand when his food was delivered.

“The record shows that not only was Christie subjected to prolonged exposure to pepper spray, but he was never adequately decontaminated after being exposed to the pepper sprayings,” he wrote. “And the unit’s ventilation system was obviously not adequate to dissipate the amount of spraying, as evidenced by testimony regarding the need to wear masks on the unit because of the pepper spray in the air.”

The judge dismissed claims against sheriff’s Sgts. Robert Bramblet and Armando Croker. The lawsuit originally listed 20 deputies and nurses, but others were dropped since the lawsuit was filed in July 2010.

After Christie was arrested on trespassing charges, he was placed in an observation wing because he was loud. As he continued acting up, jailers sprayed him repeatedly, fogging his cell with the chemical and eventually restrained him in a chair.

He passed out and was rushed to Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, where he died two days later. The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide and found the pepper spray was a contributing factor that led to heart and brain failure.

A sheriff’s investigation determined Christie refused to tell nurses about his heart condition during the booking process and that nurses checked him after each spraying. Nurse Canete told investigators that when she warned one of the jailers, deputy Kurtis Calhoun, about the level of pepper spray, he called it “good training for everyone” and laughed.

Nurse Sundo said the spray was heavy in the observation ward and that during one check of Christie, she didn’t get close to him because she feared the chemical.

The State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone, concluding Christie represented a threat and jailers didn’t show a “reckless disregard” for his life.

Scott refused to review jail policies after the investigations, but called the death “tragic.” In an email Thursday, Scott repeated his support for the Sheriff’s Office investigation. He said he preferred to limit further comment on the case.

The lawsuit alleged medical staff denied him medical attention and that nurses had screened him during an earlier arrest on similar charges on March 25, 2009, his first arrest, and knew his history. The lawsuit says Christie had a list of prescriptions on him when he was jailed and that his wife repeatedly called to ask that he be taken to a hospital.

Pepper sprayed 10 times in 43 hours? While incarcerated? Seems that being tied to a chair while naked is punishment enough, were the ten incidents of pepper spraying really necessary? And why wasn’t he decontaminated after the tenth spraying? Not allowed any water? This sounds more like a torture treatment as opposed to locking someone up who is unruly. Do you feel that the jailers used excessive force and punishment in Christie’s case?

Feel free to comment on this blog post. You can contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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