The family of an inmate who died in a Pasco County jail in 2002 has filed a $10-million lawsuit against the county, the Sheriff's Office, several doctors and jail staff, claiming medical malpractice and violation of civil rights.
James Chaney was jailed in Land O'Lakes on Nov. 13, 2002, after sheriff's narcotics deputies found more than 3 gallons of gamma hydroxybutrate, commonly known as GHB, in his Port Richey home. He was charged with trafficking in GHB and several counts of drug possession.
Orlando attorney Mark Cressman said Chaney, 28, told the jail staff when he arrived that he had taken the drugs and was going to need medical treatment.
"When he comes into the facility, he explains to them, "I've taken this medication a few hours ago. I know what it's going to do to me,' " Cressman said.
But Cressman said Chaney was put in with the general jail population and quickly began to experience withdrawal symptoms.
After again complaining to guards, Chaney was placed in a restraint chair for 21 hours, Cressman said.
When the jail staff moved him to a cell and checked on him later, he was found balled up in the corner of his cell, nearly dead, Cressman said.
"They come in, find out that he has essentially not expired, but he has had an event where he's not getting enough oxygen," Cressman said.
Chaney could not be revived, and he was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, then St. Joseph's in Tampa, where he was later taken off life support.
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner did an autopsy, which concluded Chaney died of anoxic encephalopathy, Cressman said.
Cressman explained it as a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen. He said Chaney never attempted suicide.
Altogether, Cressman said, it amounts to the jail staff failing to provide Chaney with adequate care.
"He knew it was going to affect him, and he needed help, and he did not receive any," he said.
Anthony Salzano, assistant county attorney, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case but said it will be defended aggressively.
"We stand behind the abilities and competency of the sheriff and his operation of the jail," Salzano said.
Cressman said the federal lawsuit alleges violation of Chaney's civil rights. In addition, Cressman is conducting a "presuit investigation" for a medical malpractice claim.
The legal action is being brought on behalf of Chaney's two sons, ages 9 and 10. They live with their mother, Chaney's ex-wife Keela Travis, in Naples.
The damages being sought are for the loss of support Chaney could have provided, as well as love and affection for his sons, Cressman said.