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Deliberate Indifference Among Claims Surviving Dismissal in Detainee’s Death

A federal court granted in part and denied in part three Motions for Summary Judgment from a prison health care provider, a sheriff, and guards, concerning a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the wife of a pretrial detainee.

The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida considered three Motions for Summary Judgment from Prison Health Services, Inc. (PHS) and its staff, Sheriff Mike Scott of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), and LCSO guards, concerning the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Joyce Christie, alleging deliberate indifference, excessive force, and state-law torts on behalf of her deceased husband, Nicholas Christie. The court held on January 9, 2013, that most of the staff, guards, and issues were not entitled to dismissal.

In March, 2009, Mr. Christie, 62, drove from his home in Ohio to visit his brother in Ft. Meyers, Florida. Mrs. Christie contacted LCSO when he arrived in Florida, worried about his mental health. Mr. Christie was later arrested for public intoxication on March 25.

During booking at the Lee County Jail, he informed staff of his serious health problems, including diabetes and breathing disorders, and gave information where he received the medications he took. He also authorized staff to access his medical history, and the judge at Mr. Christie’s arraignment asked for a mental health evaluation; neither was done and he was released on March 26.

Mr. Christie was arrested again on March 27 for attempting to give money away. He refused to provide any medical information to the intake clerk during a screening at 2:00 a.m. that should have taken place 12 hours before on intake, as PHS policy requires.

After a brief stay in a closed cell unit, Mr. Christie was moved to a more open unit on March 28 for detainees with mental health issues. Despite showing little signs of being a physical threat, he was sprayed with pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum (OC), more than 12 times, restrained in a restraint chair for more than 5 hours, and sprayed while strapped naked in the chair with a “spit mask” over his nose and mouth.

Mr. Christie was not decontaminated after being sprayed, given any of his medications, or allowed food, water, or toilet facilities during this period. Guards, unregulated and unsupervised, sprayed a restrained and potentially mentally ill Mr. Christie at will. Additionally, untrained PHS staff ignored policy on physically examining Christie after each spraying, instead giving him no more than a cursory visual inspection.

Mr. Christie, his health failing, was transported to the hospital on March 29, where he died on March 31. The physician who examined him testified that Mr. Christie was “entirely covered” in pepper spray, and the coroner determined the cause of death was OC poisoning. Mrs. Christie filed the lawsuit as a result.

PHS and its employees, Maria Canete (R.N.), Linda Sundo (L.P.N.), and Joan Winnie (R.N.); Sheriff Scott; and LCSO guards Daniel Falzone, Kurtis Calhoun, Dathan Pyle, and Mary DaRoss were among those whom the court did not dismiss from the lawsuit after it considered their Motions for Summary Judgment.

The court held that evidence supported a number of Mrs. Christie’s claims such as deliberate indifference; excessive force; assault and battery; the failure to train/supervise; the failure to follow policy; unconstitutional or the lack of constitutional customs, policies, or practices; medical negligence; and negligent hiring, retention, or supervision.

The claims the court dismissed, among others, were the failure of staff to conduct a mental health assessment, understaffing PHS personnel, the failure of PHS staff to intervene, and the failure of PHS to document detainees’ medical conditions. See: Christie v. Lee County Sheriff's Office, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 2:10-cv-00420-UA-DNF.

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Related legal case

Christie v. Lee County Sheriff's Office