Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates

    Elections

    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears

    World

    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'

    War

    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]