TAMPA — A federal jury on Friday awarded $975,000 to the estate of Jennifer DeGraw, a 50-year-old mentally ill woman who died after she was found unresponsive in her Pinellas County Jail cell in 2009.
“I am so ecstatic that this jury sent a message to the sheriff that the care they provided to Jennifer DeGraw was totally unacceptable to them,” said Craig Laporte, one of the attorneys for the estate.
DeGraw was booked into the jail on March 16, 2009, and the attorneys said detention deputies and medical staff didn’t adequately look after her. Nurses and doctors didn’t ensure she received her medications, based on the grounds that DeGraw refused to take them. She died of a heart attack caused by electrolyte imbalance, court documents state.
DeGraw was pronounced dead at a local hospital after being found in her single cell the morning of March 24. The night before, a nurse and a detention deputy were supposed to check on her periodically, and claimed in paperwork that they did. But videos inside the jail showed that wasn’t the case, according to documents filed by attorneys with the DeGraw estate.
DeGraw’s husband, Michael, had called police to their home at 3530 51st Ave. N. on March 16 and said she had not taken her medication all day and was acting out. DeGraw, who was bipolar, was prescribed Topamax.
Deputies Brian Diebold and Nicholas Baez intended to take Jennifer DeGraw to Personal Enrichment Mental Health Services under the state’s Baker Act, which allows a person to be kept as long as 72 hours for psychiatric evaluation. But DeGraw resisted, and Diebold subdued her with an electric stun gun, documents state.
She was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer and taken to the jail, documents state.
Lawyers for the estate initially wanted to sue the two deputies, saying they were wrong to arrest her. But U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled the pair had probable cause to take her into custody.
At the jail, Diebold told the staff that DeGraw was a Baker Act detainee and was to be kept under close medical observation, court documents state.
By law, Laporte said, a jail’s staff is required in Baker Act cases to contact a licensed mental health receiving facility immediately to send someone to examine the inmate.
That was not done, Laporte said. Jail administrators were not aware of the law, he said. In addition, then-Sheriff Jim Coats testified at the trial that he thought the jail qualified as such a facility.
During DeGraw’s nine days in jail, three doctors there either didn’t examine her properly, failed to get a medical history from her or failed to ensure she received her medications, even though the sheriff’s staff received a list of her medications from Walgreens two days after she was arrested, court documents state.
One of the doctors, psychiatrist Timothy Bailey, didn’t do anything after a licensed clinical social worker told him DeGraw had “obvious psychosis,” the documents state. DeGraw often was seen delusional and rambling.
“From the time of her arrival at the Jail intake/booking until the time of her death, Jennifer DeGraw, was in a psychotic state to such a degree that it was or should have been abundantly clear to all involved in her custody and care that she was unable to assist either verbally or physically in her medical or personal care,” the lawsuit states.
“Despite the fact that Jennifer DeGraw was incapable of making decisions on what prescribed medications to take, or whether to eat or drink, or even able to express any physical or mental symptom to those monitoring her, none of her medical, psychiatric or nutritional needs were met under the false justification that she was ‘uncooperative,’” the lawsuit states.
Detention Deputy Patricia Shoberg was supposed to check on DeGraw every 15 minutes from 7 p.m. March 23 to 7 a.m. March 24, when she was found unresponsive.
Shoberg filled out “watch forms” reflecting she had checked DeGraw as required, but jail videos showed she did not, the lawsuit states.
Also, Aileen Mallari, a nurse, was supposed to check on DeGraw every two hours during the same period.
Mallari filled out paperwork indicating she made the checks, but jail videos showed she had not, and she later acknowledged she falsified records, the lawsuit states.
Mallari made observations in her records of DeGraw based on information from Shoberg, and the observations turned out to be bogus, the lawsuit states.
Sheriff Bob Gualteiri declined comment Friday, as the office intends to appeal the verdict.