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Florida County Agrees to Pay $4 Million to Deceased Prisoner’s Estate

Nicholas T. Christie, incarcerated at the Lee County jail in Ft. Myers, Florida, died on March 31, 2009 after being repeatedly pepper sprayed by deputies while strapped to a restraint chair. Following three years of litigation, Lee County officials agreed in May 2013 to pay a record settlement of $4 million to Christie’s estate.

The jail’s for-profit medical contractor, Prison Health Services (PHS), now known as Corizon, was named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit and included in the settlement agreement.

The § 1983 suit raised claims related to Christie’s death under the “Fourth, Eighth and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the laws of the United States, and the laws of the State of Florida.”

The complaint alleged that Christie was “restrained to a chair with a hood over his head and face for several hours in the custody of the Lee County Sheriff, while being detained on a misdemeanor trespass charge,” and that medical staff at the jail failed to provide him with adequate care after he showed signs of respiratory distress during and after that incident. Medical personnel, the lawsuit stated, “acted willfully, wantonly, maliciously, and with reckless and callous disregard for and deliberate indifference to the serious medical and mental health needs of Nick Christie, and in a manner that shocks the conscience and offends traditional notions of decency, all of which led to his wrongful and untimely death.”

According to the complaint, prior to and during his placement in the restraint chair, Christie disclosed to jail staff that he had “certain serious medical conditions..., including, but not limited to, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a heart condition, cardiovascular disease, atrial fibrillation, obesity, gout, back pain, constipation, and umbilical hernia, all of which was recorded and documented in Mr. Christie’s PHS medical chart/record.”

Further, Christie’s wife had contacted jail officials to advise them of her husband’s medical conditions and to inform them he had not been taking his medication regularly, which often caused him to act in an erratic manner. When Christie was booked into the jail, officials confiscated the medications he had with him and failed to refer him for a proper medical intake evaluation that would have resulted in the jail reissuing his prescribed medications to replace those that were taken.

A report by Florida’s state medical examiner found the cause of Christie’s death was “hypoxic encephalopathy, following resuscitation for cardiac arrest, due to or as a consequence of cardiogenic shock with congestive heart failure, due to or as a consequence of physiologic stress, following restraint and noxious effects of Oleoresin Capsicum” – i.e., the pepper spray used by sheriff’s deputies.

The often excessive and abusive use of “restraint chairs” by corrections officials has been criticized by prisoners’ rights groups and has resulted in litigation in other jurisdictions as well. Unfortunately for Christie, the failure of Lee County jail staff to follow proper procedures and the failure of PHS employees to provide adequate medical care led to his death. And unfortunately for the county and PHS, those failures resulted in a $4 million settlement to resolve the subsequent lawsuit filed by Christie’s estate. See: Christie v. Scott, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 2:10-cv-00420-UA-DNF.

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