A Florida wrongful death lawsuit, filed by the widow of a mentally ill Ohio man, has settled after a roughly five-hour settlement conference. The 2009 death occurred after the man was repeatedly pepper sprayed while being held at the Lee County Jail. The suit, filed against the Sheriff, the jail’s medical provider, and several deputies and nurses is said to have settled “well into” the seven figures.
The decedent had come to Florida to visit family, when he stopped taking his medications, causing him to act erratically. After being asked to leave his family’s home, he was later arrested at a motel for trespassing. Once at the jail, he was placed in an observation wing because he was loud.
Because of his continued behavior, he was repeatedly pepper sprayed, even after having been restrained to a chair. The man was exposed to pepper spray ten times during a forty-three-hour period while pleading for mercy as he couldn’t breathe. The record shows that the jail’s ventilation system was not adequate to dissipate the amount of spraying and that he was subjected to prolonged exposure of the pepper spray as the area was never adequately decontaminated after the spraying. After having passed out and rushed to a local medical center, he died two days later. According to the medical examiner, the pepper spray was found to be a contributing factor that led to heart and brain failure. Brutal, just brutal.
You might think that the takeaway message for this tragedy would be that jail policies and procedures might need to be reviewed. Sadly, this is not the case. The Sheriff “refused” to review policies after the investigation and the confidential settlement didn’t include an agreement to change policies and procedures at the jail. Amazingly, the State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone, saying that the decedent represented a threat, and jailers didn’t show a “reckless disregard” for his life. Completely restrained to a chair, how serious a threat could he have been?
We have to stop the bad guys. Believe me, I get that. But we have to do it with as much decency as possible while still fully protecting the officers and the public. Is that a thin line sometimes? Absolutely. Did they race past that line here? It is impossible to argue otherwise.