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Lawsuit: Negligence led to death of man, 58, at Pinellas County Jail

By Kathryn Varn | Times Staff
Published: December 27, 2017
The entrance to the Pinellas County Jail complex in Clearwater, where inmate Timothy Matthews died in 2016 from thickening of the artery walls. He was 58. His family alleges in a lawsuit that a lack of treatment in the jail led to his death, a charge the sheriff's office denies. [Times files]

The family of a man who died at the Pinellas County Jail has filed a lawsuit claiming inadequate medical care led to his death.

Timothy Matthews, who was 58 when he died, had complained to family and jail staff for weeks about chest pain before he collapsed in October 2016, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges wrongful death, negligence and indifference to a serious medical need. Court records show Matthews was sentenced 364 days in August 2016 for misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia.

"This is a mistake that he made that resulted in just under a one-year jail sentence," said Chelsie Lamie, an attorney representing the family, "and unfortunately it has turned into a death sentence."

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, citing an internal review, said jail medical staff provided the right treatment. The review, completed in March, concluded that "staff responded appropriately with no contributing factors to the natural cause of death."

"I’m confident that everything was done properly," the sheriff said.

The first record of Matthews complaining of chest pain was Sept. 30, according to the review. Medical staff conducted an electrocardiogram test, which turned up normal, then gave him an antacid. After that, he returned several times for heartburn and abdominal pain, saying it worsened after eating. He was given antacids again.

On Oct. 5, a deputy responded to Matthews’ pod, where he was doubled over in pain and crying "with a very distressed look on his face," according to an investigative report.

At the clinic, he said the pain was a 10 on the pain scale. Medical staff gave him another electrocardiogram test, during which he yelled in pain when the electrodes were applied and couldn’t stop shaking. He was taken to medical observation.

The next day, the medical staff examined him and told him he was experiencing muscle pain from cleaning floors, according to the review.

The night before he died, Matthews had stabbing and burning chest pain with burping and flatulence. He was again given an antacid. A short while later, he knocked on the window of an officer’s station and told a deputy, "My chest pains are getting worse," according to the report. As the deputy called for a nurse, he heard a loud thump and yelling in the pod. He went inside and saw Matthews on the ground.

Jail staff gave him CPR until paramedics arrived. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the cause of death as atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, or the thickening of the artery walls, and the manner of death as natural.

Detectives interviewed 31 inmates as part of the investigation. The majority said Matthews, who one described as "the grandfather of the barracks," had complained of chest pain before. A handful said that when he had visited medical staff, they told him he was faking it.

When asked about those statements, Gualtieri said he has no information to indicate they’re true.

"They’re inmates. They manipulate the system at times," he said. "When people present with medical conditions, there are a number of causes for them, and medical staff does their diligence to make sure they’re properly cared for."

The investigative report also references phone calls and video visitations between Matthews and his mother during which he mentions the chest pain. During one of those phone calls, in the hours before he died, he told a family member the pain was so bad he felt like he was "dying," according to the lawsuit.

Relatives declined to comment, but said through Lamie that the loss has been tough for the close-knit family.

"He always was willing to help anybody around him without expecting anybody in return," she said.

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.