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Family of Prisoner Who Died from Allergic Reaction Settles Lawsuit for $2.4 Million

The family of a 22-year-old prisoner who died from a food allergy while he was held at the Snohomish County, Washington jail has settled a lawsuit against the facility, but an attorney for the family claimed the county lied about the amount of the settlement and lied about evidence in their son’s death that was only released after the family sued for disclosure.

County officials announced on July 27, 2015 that they paid a settlement of $620,000 to the family of Michael Saffioti, who died at the jail in early July 2012 after suffering an allergic reaction to dairy products used in preparing oatmeal for breakfast at the facility.

“The death of Mr. Saffioti was a tragedy,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said in a prepared statement. “To own up for our mistakes and to cover litigation costs, the county has paid $620,000 in this settlement.”

“There was a global settlement discussed of $2.4 million,” countered attorney Cheryl Snow of Seattle, who represented Saffioti’s family. “The plaintiffs are concerned about the gross misrepresentation of the amount that’s claimed to be paid by Snohomish County and its insurers.”

A county deputy prosecutor confirmed that the $2.4 million total settlement cited by Snow was correct, with most of that amount covered by insurance. The suit filed by Michael Saffioti’s parents, Rosemary and Giovanni, had named the county, individual corrections department employees and a food services provider as defendants.

The complaint, which was eventually moved to federal court, alleged that jail officials knew, or should have known, that their son risked death from anaphylactic shock because he suffered from a severe allergy to dairy products. The suit claimed that several jail employees, including a guard and four nurses, ignored their son’s medical needs and his repeated pleas for help when he began to suffer an apparent allergic reaction after eating the oatmeal. About a half-hour later, he collapsed and died.

But when the Saffiotis requested video surveillance of the incident, they were told that such evidence did not exist; that the video was kept for just 60 days in accordance with state law. It was only later they learned that investigators with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office had made a copy of the video and entered it into the record. After another unsuccessful request for disclosure, the family filed suit in King County Superior Court on October 2, 2013, forcing the county to release the video, which “definitely support[ed] our theory,” said Snow.

As a result of the public records lawsuit filed to secure the video’s disclosure, the county paid Rosemary Saffioti a settlement of $95,000.

The saga began on July 2, 2012, when Michael Saffioti surrendered to police on charges of failing to appear in court for a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. Snow said jail guards knew Saffiotti had severe food allergies because he had been incarcerated at the facility before and officials had a medical file which detailed his condition.

The surveillance video showed him at the guard’s desk at approximately 6:00 a.m., holding what appeared to be a tray of oatmeal and discussing the food with a guard and other prisoners. According to Snow, Saffioti was told that the food was safe for him to eat and he took a few bites. However, within several minutes the video showed Saffioti back at the guard’s desk, using his inhaler. The lawsuit alleged he asked to see medical staff but was instead sent to his cell.

Over the next half-hour, the video shows other prisoners looking in Saffioti’s cell as he jumped up and down repeatedly. He pressed the cell’s emergency call button but was ignored, the suit contended. Finally, after about 35 minutes, a guard responded and Saffioti was dragged from his cell, unconscious. Nurses and then emergency responders attempted to revive him, but he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.18].

His family’s wrongful death suit alleged that jail guards told Saffioti he was “faking” his allergic reaction. Snow said the guards “absolutely knew about Michael’s medical needs,” and that the video indicated he “clearly made his needs apparent, that his needs were ignored. Once he suffered distress, he was further ignored.”

“My son tried to get help,” his mother stated. ”He put on his emergency light multiple times. People in the same unit were trying to help him.” She said her son smoked marijuana to relieve the great anxiety that he suffered due to his severe allergies.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe announced on January 3, 2013 that he would not file criminal charges against any jail staff in connection with Saffioti’s death.

“I’ve had the opportunity to read a 400-page report,” Roe said in defending his decision. “I reviewed video taken in the jail the time the tragedy took place. I saw transcripts and listened to recordings of interviews.” He also insisted his investigation was fair.

But Snow said she had been stonewalled because she was prevented from interviewing officials from the Medical Examiner’s Office and the emergency responders. “Instead of us having transparency, we have come up against a brick wall,” she stated. See: Saffioti v. Snohomish County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00361-TSZ.

Michael Saffioti was among over a dozen prisoners who died at the Snohomish County jail since 2010. In addition to the lawsuit filed by his family, a wrongful death claim was filed against jail officials in March 2013 on behalf of Lyndsey Lason, 27, alleging her 2011 death from a lung infection could have been prevented if jail staff had provided timely and adequate medical care. That case settled in June 2014 for $1.3 million. [See related article in this issue of PLN].



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Related legal case

Saffioti v. Snohomish County