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Jury awards $975,000 after woman dies in Pinellas jail

TAMPA — Jennifer DeGraw showed up barefoot at her husband's job site in March 2009 in a state of mania, telling him someone had stolen the car.

It wasn't true. The truth was tragic. She had stopped taking her medicine for bipolar disorder, and her mind was lying to her.

Amid the crisis, Michael DeGraw turned to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Deputies didn't take his wife to a mental health hospital. They subdued her with a Taser and booked her into the Pinellas County Jail on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer, court records state.

She died there eight days later of a heart attack due to electrolyte imbalance after refusing food and medicine, the medical examiner ruled.

Now, a jury in a federal civil trial has awarded Jennifer DeGraw's estate $975,000 in damages, siding with attorneys who argued that jail officials violated her civil rights by failing to provide necessary medical treatment.

"The medical/nursing staff negligently failed to take appropriate steps to assure that Jennifer DeGraw took her medications or consumed adequate food and drink, or to respond to her inability to do so," the civil complaint states.

At times, according to the complaint, jail personnel made it appear in records they had checked on the woman when jail videos showed they had not.

She was found unresponsive in her cell March 24, 2009, with cereal, bread and feces on the floor, records state.

The Sheriff's Office plans to appeal the jury's verdict, which was announced Friday. But spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda otherwise declined to discuss the case. Litigation is still pending in state court, where DeGraw's estate has a medical malpractice lawsuit against three jail doctors.

The federal case was originally filed against then-Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats but amended to name current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

In state court, sovereign immunity limits cap awards against government agencies at $200,000, absent a special legislative claims bill. But that isn't the case in federal civil rights cases, said Michael DeGraw's attorney, Craig A. Laporte.

The DeGraws had been married two years. He was 44; she was 50. The March 2009 incident was the first time Michael DeGraw had seen his wife in a psychotic state, Laporte said Monday.

The husband wanted Jennifer DeGraw to be committed in a mental health program under the Baker Act, a state law that allows involuntary psychiatric evaluation and treatment for up to 72 hours.

He repeatedly checked on his wife during her eight days at the jail, his attorney said.

"He called the jail five times over those eight days," Laporte said. "They kept telling him she was where needed to be, she was stable."

Laporte said the jail would not allow Michael DeGraw to visit, and Jennifer DeGraw wasn't afforded a first appearance before a judge on the criminal charge.

"He offered to bring the medicine down to the jail," Laporte said. "They told him absolutely not."

Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Jury awards $975,000 after woman dies in Pinellas jail 02/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 11:22pm]
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