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Parents sue Pierce County, health care provider after son dies in jail

Nona Smith holds a picture of her son Matthew while husband Ben lends support at their Bonney Lake home in March. Matthew died in October while at the Pierce County Jail. He had severe Crohn’s disease and needed medical attention that he wasn’t given, the parents contend in a suit.
Nona Smith holds a picture of her son Matthew while husband Ben lends support at their Bonney Lake home in March. Matthew died in October while at the Pierce County Jail. He had severe Crohn’s disease and needed medical attention that he wasn’t given, the parents contend in a suit. lwong@thenewstribune.com

The family of a Bonney Lake man who died last year while in custody in the Pierce County Jail has sued Pierce County in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Filed last week, the suit also names NaphCare Inc., a correctional health care firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, and two nurses.

Ben and Nona Smith sued on behalf of their 48-year-old son, Matthew Smith. He died on a jail cell floor Oct. 9, 2015, from a sepsis infection associated with his severe Crohn’s disease, according to medical records.

The lawsuit alleges the infection resulted from a lack of sufficient medical attention, including a failure by jail medical staff members to identify his worsening condition and get him medical treatment outside the jail.

The lawsuit details Smith’s numerous interactions with medical staff members, including blood lab work made available to medical personnel two days before his death that showed he “was in severe kidney failure due to his gastrointestinal issues.”

It alleges the lack of treatment by NaphCare and its nurses violated Smith’s civil rights, constituting “inhumane” conditions.

Matthew Smith, 48, died Oct. 9, 2015, on the floor of a Pierce County Jail cell from a sepsis infection associated with his severe Crohn’s disease. His parents allege lack of sufficient medical treatment while in jail resulted in his death.

Bradley Cain, general counsel for NaphCare, said in an email Monday that the company had not been served with the lawsuit, making it “premature for NaphCare to offer any comments on this matter.”

The lawsuit also alleges the county has allowed a pattern to exist at the jail in which inmates with serious medical needs aren’t properly cared for.

In Smith’s case, the suit contends that included not returning him to Tacoma General Hospital, where he was previously treated while in jail, or following hospital discharge instructions when his condition worsened.

Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said the jail accommodated Smith’s dietary needs related to this Crohn’s disease by giving him extra food. Smith needed a diet high in salt and fat because his large intestine had been removed to help manage the disease, which causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract.

When jail staff members saw Smith on the floor of his cell, they called medical personnel, Troyer said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

“The response team included a medical doctor who quickly assessed the situation and called for priority medical aid,” he wrote. “Tacoma Fire medics arrived and attempted life-saving efforts. Corrections deputies have saved many inmates lives.”

Smith was arrested Aug. 27, 2015, after Bonney Lake police said they 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 health issues, according to arrest records.

Smith previously was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and periodically experienced psychotic episodes, according to his parents.

Attorney Ashton Dennis filed a $2 million claim on behalf of Ben and Nona Smith against Pierce County, Sheriff Paul Pastor and a corrections deputy in March. The county had 60 days to respond.

That didn’t happen, and the lawsuit was filed, Dennis said.

The suit was amended to include NaphCare after additional medical records were obtained, allegedly showing a lack of care, Dennis said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

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