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Pinellas Sheriff's Office pays $1.15 million in wrongful-death suit

TAMPA — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office paid $1.15 million days ago to the estate of a mentally ill woman who died in 2009 after refusing food and medicine in the Pinellas County jail.

The settlement ends all federal and state court claims against the jail and its employees by Michael DeGraw, whose late wife, Jennifer DeGraw, then 50, was found unresponsive in her cell on March 24, 2009, in a swill of cereal, bread and feces.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who inherited the lawsuits from former Sheriff Jim Coats, said Tuesday evening that Mrs. DeGraw never should have been arrested and that the testimony of former jail psychiatrist Richard Miller hurt the most.

"That is the most burning thing about all this, when you've got the treating psychiatrist who said he knew she was suffering and he didn't do anything about it," Gualtieri said.

A federal jury in February recommended damages of $975,000 after deciding that Coats, in his official capacity, was "deliberately indifferent" to Mrs. DeGraw's medical needs.

The Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail, asked U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich to throw out that verdict but got no sympathy.

Kovachevich used the words "potentially catastrophic" to describe what she called the agency's colliding policies at the time of Mrs. DeGraw's death — policies that regularly deposited unstable people at a jail unequipped to receive them.

The bipolar woman, who had stopped taking her medicine even before her arrest, landed in jail amid a psychotic episode. She had arrived at her husband's workplace barefoot in a state of mania.

He called authorities for help, expecting her to be hospitalized under the state's Baker Act, which allows involuntary psychiatric evaluation and treatment for up to 72 hours.

But she kicked a deputy, which led to her arrest and placement in jail instead of a mental health facility. Deputies were supposed to arrest any offender accused of a felony, one deputy had testified.

"From the get-go, it was a calamity," Gualtieri said Tuesday.

The deputies had probable cause to arrest Mrs. DeGraw, he said, but he added, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should."

After eight days in jail, Mrs. DeGraw died of a heart attack caused by an electrolyte imbalance after refusing food and medicine, the medical examiner ruled.

Attorneys argued that jail officials violated her civil rights by failing to provide necessary medical treatment.

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

Gualtieri said the Sheriff's Office considered appealing the February jury verdict but decided it could prove more costly in the long run.

The Sheriff's Office is self-insured up to $1.5 million.

The $1.15 million settlement includes the jury award. It also quiets medical negligence claims that were pending in state court.

David Henry, one of Michael DeGraw's attorneys, said the widower is "very pleased" with the settlement.

Five years have passed since he lost his wife of two years.

Another of his attorneys, Craig Laporte, said DeGraw was most concerned that what happened to Mrs. DeGraw wouldn't happen to someone else.

Could it happen again?

Things can go wrong, Gualtieri said. The jail books 47,000 people a year and has 1,100 employees. But those who were once responsible for Mrs. DeGraw's care no longer work there, he said.

"I don't think it would happen again," he said. "I hope it wouldn't happen again. I believe we have the right people and procedures to ensure it wouldn't."

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Pinellas Sheriff's Office pays $1.15 million in wrongful-death suit 07/08/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 9:06am]

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