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$4.45 Million Verdict in Meningitis Death of Cook County Jail Prisoner

$4.45 Million Verdict in Meningitis Death of Cook County Jail Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

An Illinois federal jury awarded $4.45 million to the mother of a prisoner who died at the Cook County Jail. The verdict sent a strong message that ignoring prisoners’ serious medical conditions would not be tolerated.

Six days after he was arrested on April 23, 2004 for possessing a controlled substance, prisoner Norman L. Smith, Jr., 32, died at the Cook County Jail of meningitis. He had complained of flu-like symptoms upon screening by medical personnel during the booking process, but was cleared for placement in general population anyway.

By April 26, Smith’s condition had deteriorated. His requests to receive medical attention or be seen by a doctor were dismissed, because the guards thought he was only “dopesick.” On the morning of April 27, Smith was “obviously in serious need of urgent medical attention,” according to a subsequent civil rights complaint filed by his family. At that time he was repeatedly vomiting green liquid and could not eat.

Regardless, Smith’s pleas that he felt he would “die soon” were ignored. In fact, guards refused to let him to make written requests for medical attention. When a request was allowed, it was refused by medical personnel. “As Norman’s health continued to deteriorate, he was not able to move and was forced to lie on the concrete floor in his own vomit,” the complaint stated.

An April 28 medical request, filed by another prisoner, said Smith was having chest pains, fever and vomiting, and that he had been ill for two weeks. The request was ignored. On April 30, one of Smith’s tier mates woke up at 4:00 a.m. to find him having convulsions.

A guard contacted Sergeant Monczynski, who waited half an hour before checking on Smith. It was another half hour until a jail paramedic arrived. After taking Smith’s pulse, the paramedic casually walked to the tier office to get Smith’s identification. That task also took a half hour. When Smith’s tier mates yelled, “This man’s real sick in here, he needs help,” the paramedic responded, “He’s going to have to wait.”

By the time additional paramedics arrived, Smith was barely breathing; one of his eyes was shut and the other was open and rolled to the back of his head. The paramedics, with a gurney on wheels, stopped about one hundred feet short of Smith. They just stood there at the top of the stairs.

When asked why they were waiting, the paramedics responded they didn’t have the manpower to lift Smith up the steps. Three of Smith’s tier mates then lifted him and moved him to the gurney, which the paramedics slowly wheeled out. Shortly thereafter Smith died of meningitis, a readily treatable condition.

On December 13, 2007, a federal jury awarded Smith’s mother $3 million against Cook County, $1 million against the sheriff’s office, and $150,000 each against jail guards Jesus Facundo, Alex Sanchez and Terrance Toomey. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo told the jurors, “By this verdict you intend to send a serious message that things need to change at the Cook County Jail.”

Judge Castillo also criticized jail officials. “I’ve made my record how I attempted to settle this case and could have settled this case for less than this verdict,” he said after dismissing the jury. “And now it is up to taxpayers of Cook County to foot a bill that was totally unnecessary in this case. That’s all I’m going to say.”

The court granted a post-trial motion for remittitur and reduced the damage award from $4,450,000 to $4,150,000. The amount of the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs was hotly disputed by the parties, but following a lengthy analysis by Judge Castillo an agreed statement for $598,825 in fees and $22,839.80 in costs was filed for the court’s approval. An appeal of the jury verdict is pending. See: Thomas ex rel. Smith v. Sheahan, 556 F.Supp.2d 861 (N.D.Ill., 2008).

Additional source: Chicago Sun Times

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Related legal case

Thomas ex rel. Smith v. Sheahan