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Saginaw County Jail in Michigan Settles Prisoner’s Wrongful Death Suit for $1.3 Million

The Executive Committee for Saginaw County, Michigan voted in December 2011 to settle a lawsuit that alleged county and jail officials were responsible for a prisoner’s death that occurred in May 2007.

Jerry Rouster, 48, was serving a 3-day sentence for misdemeanor contempt of court at the Saginaw County Jail when he died. A medical examiner determined his death was due to peritonitis resulting from a preexisting perforated ulcer below his stomach. A lawsuit filed by Rouster’s estate alleged that jail officials and the jail’s private health care provider, SecureCare, Inc., had violated Rouster’s civil rights and “displayed deliberate indifference to Jerry’s serious medical condition.”

Rouster was found curled up in a fetal position on the floor of a cell he shared with 14 other prisoners on May 9, 2007. He complained to jail medical staff that he had stomach cramps and abdominal pain. Three guards carried Rouster to the medical unit for examination.

According to the lawsuit, Rouster “was not examined by competent and licensed medical personnel, and was returned to his jail cell, despite obvious signs of emergent and urgent abdominal illness.” He was placed in a medical observation area.

Rouster’s mental and physical condition worsened within hours, but neither guards nor medical staff arranged for him to see a registered nurse or doctor, nor was he transferred to a hospital. His condition deteriorated to the point that he was eating leftover food off the cell floor and drinking water from a toilet despite a water fountain being nearby. A few hours later he again complained of severe stomach pain, yet staff did not provide medical care.

Guards failed to log observations or make rounds every 15 minutes as required by policy for prisoners in medical observation cells, the lawsuit charged. “Despite the fact that Jerry denied drug or alcohol abuse at that time,” medical personnel performed a drug and alcohol withdrawal assessment in response to his complaints and obvious pain.

A video camera recorded Rouster’s last moments at 3:00 a.m. on May 11, 2007. It showed him “with his legs straightened out from underneath him and leaning against the wall.” At 5:40 a.m., a guard entered Rouster’s cell to deliver breakfast and “discovered [he] was no longer moving and ultimately request[ed] medical assistance, only to discover Jerry had died.”

In court filings, the county’s attorney, David J. MacMain, blamed Rouster for failing to disclose he had medical problems during his intake at the jail, and argued jail officials did not “have any reason to believe that Rouster was suffering from any medical condition.” Other than his repeated requests for help, complaints of pain and bizarre behavior, apparently.

The lawsuit also claimed that jail employees had “engaged in deceitful and dishonest conduct to cover up the fact that they had not appropriately or timely monitored” Rouster. It further alleged jail personnel “knowingly failed to provide honest and truthful statements during an investigation” into Rouster’s death; had instructed subordinates “to falsify records, reports and statements”; and “knowingly falsified observation sheets in an attempt to cover up [the] failure” to carry out their duties.

Indeed, eighteen jail employees were disciplined following an internal investigation into Rouster’s death. Two guards were fired, a shift supervisor was demoted and suspended for five days, a sergeant and four guards received six-hour suspensions, and 10 other guards received written reprimands.

Saginaw County Sheriff William L. Federspiel conceded policy changes were needed to avoid such incidents in the future. “We are very aware of the mistakes that may have been made by our agency that we hope will never happen again,” he said.

Those changes included contracting with a different medical provider at the Saginaw County Jail; SecureCare was replaced in September 2009. Sheriff Federspiel declined to comment on other specific policy reforms.

“This is one of the most egregious, sad cases I’ve ever seen in my life,” said attorney Vernon R. Johnson, who represented Rouster’s estate. “There was an absolute failure that a man who went into jail healthy rotted from inside out. It was a failure on all levels. This man literally died a horrific death.”

The county agreed to settle the case for $1.3 million in December 2011. Approximately $452,236 of that amount went to attorney fees and costs. The lawsuit remains pending against SecureCare and other defendants, though two doctors were later dismissed by stipulation. See: Rouster v. Saginaw County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:11-cv-10986-TLL-CEB.

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Related legal case

Rouster v. Saginaw County