The parents of a Bonney Lake man have filed a $2 million claim against Pierce County, Sheriff Paul Pastor and a corrections deputy, alleging civil rights violations because their son didn’t receive adequate medical care while in the Pierce County Jail.
The claim alleges a lack of treatment for Matthew Smith’s severe case of Crohn’s disease and a sepsis infection that led to his death while in custody.
Ben and Nona Smith said they filed the claim to get answers about how their 48-year-old son died.
They said they also want to make sure jail inmates get proper care.
“I felt like the system was our enemy,” Ben Smith said from his home Thursday. “Nobody wanted to tell us anything.”
The Sheriff’s Department learned of the Smiths’ claim Thursday from a News Tribune reporter, spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“We just found out about this,” he said. “We’re investigating.”
The jail contracts its medical care through a private health care provider. The Sheriff’s Department “will take a look at” the claims, investigate and reply, Troyer said.
Pierce County has 60 days to reply to the Smiths’ claim. After that a lawsuit can be filed, said their attorney, Ashton Dennis.
Matthew Smith was arrested Aug. 27 after Bonney Lake police saw him driving recklessly.
Initially, officers thought he was driving under the influence, but after finding him naked and hallucinating in a shed on private property they believed he was having mental issues, according to arrest records.
He previously was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and periodically experienced psychotic episodes, according to his parents.
“(T)he county was warned about Matthew’s serious health risks by local hospital staff and the need for medical attention, and instead of taking him to the hospital when his condition objectively worsened, jail staff carted him to an observatory cell where he was found dead hours later.”
Ashton Dennis, attorney representing Matthew Smith’s family
He also had a severe case of Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. Frequent diarrhea and rectal bleeding are symptoms of severe cases of the disease.
Matthew Smith’s large intestine was previously removed to help manage the disease.
“Crohn’s colored everything he did,” Ben Smith said. “It’s not something he could consciously control.”
In the claim, the family alleges the jail was not equipped to handle Matthew Smith’s medical condition, which had specific dietary needs, including a diet high in salt, sugar and fat.
While his son was in jail, Ben Smith said in an interview with The News Tribune, he tried to tell jail officials about his son’s dietary restrictions. His requests were met with minimal response, he said.
He also continued to ask for his son to receive a mental health evaluation.
According to the family’s claim, state policy says psychiatric evaluations and admissions to Western State Hospital should occur within seven days of an arrest.
It took 19 days for Matthew Smith to be evaluated, according to jail records. The evaluation confirmed his earlier diagnosis of bipolar disorder and noted he had recently had a psychotic episode.
“The mental health staff at the jail said Matthew had not come to their attention,” said Dennis, the Smiths’ attorney. “Yet he was arrested naked and the arresting officer noted he was having mental health issues.”
A month after being booked into jail Matthew Smith was taken to Tacoma General Hospital for medical treatment for his Crohn’s disease.
“I felt like the system was our enemy. Nobody wanted to tell us anything.”
Ben Smith, father of deceased Pierce County Jail inmate Matthew Smith
According to medical records obtained by the Smith family, he was sent back to the jail with instructions that if his condition worsened he should be brought back to the emergency department.
Four days later, Matthew Smith was in the jail’s medical clinic after having what the claim terms a “Crohn’s episode.”
A week after that he was found dead on the floor of the jail clinic cell where he had been taken for monitoring during a Crohn’s episode.
“This case is about protecting individuals’ fundamental civil rights,” Dennis said. “Here, the county was warned about Matthew’s serious health risks by local hospital staff and the need for medical attention, and instead of taking him to the hospital when his condition objectively worsened, jail staff carted him to an observatory cell where he was found dead hours later.
“The Smith family has been told there is an investigation ongoing but we have not been made aware of any corrective changes or the outcome of that investigation.”
The Smiths said they didn’t bail their son out of jail because they thought he was safe and would get the mental health treatment he needed through the county’s mental health court.
“If I had known he wouldn’t be safe, I wouldn’t have left him there,” Ben Smith said.