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Widower files second lawsuit in wife's Pinellas jail death

CLEARWATER — A man whose wife died after eight days in the Pinellas County Jail in 2009 has filed a second civil lawsuit against the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, this one alleging she died from inadequate care by three jail doctors.

The suit asserts 50-year-old Jennifer DeGraw was in a "psychotic state" when she was booked into the jail on March 16, 2009, making it impossible for her to participate in her own care. It accuses the doctors — including a physician, a psychiatrist and the former jail medical director — of failing to address DeGraw's mental health issues and neglecting to ensure she received the proper medications and nutrition.

DeGraw died March 24, 2009, after she was found unresponsive in her cell with "cereal, bread and feces on the floor," according to a medical examiner's report. Jail staff reported she had been making "weird noises" and "off the wall" statements during her confinement. The cause of death was found to be fluid and electrolyte imbalance.

"If we are able to establish the allegations in our complaint to a jury, then we will have established that Mrs. DeGraw was let down at several levels, beginning with her arrival at the jail," said attorney Scott Borders, who filed the most recent suit against Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats and the three doctors in late July.

DeGraw, of St. Petersburg, was jailed on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer after Michael DeGraw called authorities to his home because his wife was acting irrationally.

According to court filings, DeGraw told responding deputies that she was bipolar and had quit taking her medications. Deputies originally said they would commit her under the state's Baker Act, but arrested her instead after she kicked one of them.

The first lawsuit in the DeGraw case, filed in Pinellas in March, was moved to federal court in April. It was against Coats and the two deputies who arrested DeGraw, and it maintains that her civil rights were violated.

The claim against the deputies, charging DeGraw was falsely arrested, was dismissed. Claims against Coats alleging wrongful death and a violation of civil rights are ongoing.

The latest suit, filed in Clearwater at the end of July, is against Coats and the three doctors and alleges medical negligence.

Attorneys for DeGraw's husband as the representative of her estate claim that former jail medical director Timothy S. Bailey examined DeGraw a day after she was booked into the jail but gave no orders for his patient.

A day later, on March 18, 2009, DeGraw was seen by jail psychiatrist Richard Miller, who was provided a list of medications DeGraw was supposed to be taking, according to the suit. Miller failed to ensure DeGraw received her medications "on the grounds she was 'uncooperative' or 'refused her medications,' '' the suit alleges.

A third jail employee, part-time physician Natalie Borg, saw DeGraw on March 21, 2009, but didn't perform a physical examination and did not create a health care plan, the suit charges.

All three medical professionals named in the suit have since resigned. Resignation documents do not reflect DeGraw's case as the cause. None of the three was the subject of internal investigations when they left the agency, according to a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.

However, a detention deputy and a nurse were previously disciplined by Coats after internal affairs investigations found they had both falsified entries in watch logs, saying they had checked on DeGraw at times when they had not.

Sheriff's Office officials declined to comment on pending litigation, as is their policy.

Craig LaPorte, the attorney representing DeGraw's estate in the civil rights case, said Tuesday that DeGraw should have been committed under the Baker Act and should have had her medications, food and drink administered by force if necessary to help stabilize her and provide her with the fluids and nutrition she needed.

"She was slowly killing herself and they were watching her do it," he said.

LaPorte said Michael DeGraw is a "hardworking guy" suffering from the loss of his wife.

"He trudges his way to work every day. The employer likes him," LaPorte said. "But he goes home every night to an empty house ... This was the love of his life."

Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or farlow@sptimes.com.

Widower files second lawsuit in wife's Pinellas jail death 08/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 9:06am]

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