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Judge: Lawsuit in jail death can move forward

Family's allegations include wrongful death, excessive use of force and more by Lynn LaRowe | March 17, 2019 at 3:00 a.m. | Updated March 17, 2019 at 2:48 a.m.
Teresa and Michael Sabbie

A federal judge in Texarkana issued a 169-page report last week which finds there is sufficient evidence to support claims in a civil lawsuit stemming from the 2015 in-custody death of a Bi-State Justice Building jail inmate.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Caroline Craven issued a report and recommendation March 6 in a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Michael Sabbie's family, which thoroughly chronicles the alleged failings of corporate defendants, LaSalle Corrections and LaSalle Management Company; municipal defendants, Bowie County, Texas, and Texarkana, Ark.; and individual defendants, Licensed Vocational Nurses Tiffany Venable and Mia Flint; Capt. Brian Jones, Lt. Nathaniel Johnson, Sgt. Daniel Hopkins, and correctional officers Clint Brown, Robert Derrick, Stuart Boozer, Andrew Lomax, Shawn Palmer and Simone Nash.

Seattle lawyer Eric Heipt, who represents the Sabbie family, and Texarkana lawyer Paul Miller, who represents the defendants, both declined to comment.

The exhaustive analysis of the facts and applicable state and federal laws recommends that motions for summary judgment on behalf of the corporate, municipal and individual defendants be denied and that allegations of wrongful death, constitutionally inadequate medical care and excessive use of force be evaluated by a jury.

The report notably found that neither Bowie County nor the City of Texarkana, Ark., can delegate their duties to a third party, LaSalle, through a contract. LaSalle's contract to manage the Bi-State jail was recently renewed for another year by the Bowie County Commissioner's Court. Private management of prisons and jails has been hailed as saving tax dollars, but critics allege the privatization has led to widespread abuses by companies that put profits over the health and safety of inmates.

Sabbie was arrested July 19, 2015, by Texarkana, Ark., police following a verbal altercation with his wife.

Sabbie reported that night at intake that he suffered from high blood pressure, asthma and heart troubles and that he depended on insulin and a special diet to manage his diabetes. Flint noted his blood pressure was high at that time.

According to evidence referenced in U.S. Magistrate Caroline Craven's report, Sabbie's blood sugar was never checked. Despite LaSalle's corporate protocol and in violation of basic standards of nursing care, nursing staff did not start blood pressure recording or blood sugar monitoring logs, evidence cited in the report states. No orders were created concerning Sabbie's diet. From the date of his arrest to the time his body was discovered on the floor of a one-man cell, Sabbie was never given any medication.

At 3:30 a.m. July 20, 2015, Sabbie was taken back to the nursing station where he complained to Flint that he was short of breath and could not breathe while lying down. Flint did not check Sabbie's blood pressure or blood sugar and did not listen to his heart or lungs with a stethoscope. She did take his pulse, which showed it had nearly doubled since he arrived at the jail just six or seven hours prior, according to the report.

Flint also did not follow LaSalle's own shortness-of-breath protocol and stated in a deposition that she did not "know to," according to the report.

Experts for the plaintiff provided deposition testimony that Flint should have contacted the doctor on contract with LaSalle about Sabbie's case and at the very least should have let the registered nurse supervisor, who was not working in the Bi-State, of Sabbie's case and apparently worsening medical state. Flint, in her deposition, stated that she believes Sabbie was short of breath because he was obese.

"In response to Mr. Sabbie's report of being unable to breathe while lying down, Nurse Flint advised him to 'sit up,' which she claimed at deposition was an appropriate treatment plan," the report states.

Flint testified in her deposition that she believed Sabbie should have been placed in a medical observation cell where she could observe him.

"However, during the hour-and-a-half remainder of her shift, she did not check on Mr. Sabbie," the report states.

Sabbie was never placed in a medical observation cell. A physician who analyzed the case as an expert for the plaintiff expressed the opinion that Sabbie was likely in the early stages of pulmonary edema at this time and should have been seen in an emergency room immediately. The only person Flint discussed Sabbie's medical condition with was Venable, who relieved Flint in the jail at 5 a.m. July 20, 2015.

Venable did not check Sabbie's blood pressure, blood sugar or inquire as to his health in any way during her 12-hour shift July 20, 2015, the report states. Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. the morning of July 21, 2015, Palmer brought Sabbie to the nurse's station after other inmates alerted him Sabbie was coughing up blood into a cup.

Venable determined that the blood was "really bright red" as you might see with someone "biting the inside of one's cheek," the report states. Sabbie was sent back to his cell without a physical examination.

A couple of hours later, officers Derrick, Boozer, Brown and Johnson escorted Sabbie back to the nurse's station because of his breathing issues. Venable did not follow LaSalle's shortness-of-breath protocol and sent him back to his cell. Palmer wrote a disciplinary report citing Sabbie for faking illness and difficulty breathing.

That afternoon Sabbie was taken downstairs for a short court appearance at which he pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor offense. His sweating and labored breathing led the judge to allow Sabbie to remain seated during his hearing. Brown escorted Sabbie and other inmates who'd appeared in court back to the fourth-floor jail where Sabbie asked Brown if he can make a phone call.

Video surveillance footage shows that Sabbie was struggling to breathe, was standing in a tri-pod position with hands on his knees attempting to catch his breath. After Brown declined to let Sabbie make a phone call, Sabbie turned and began walking toward the jail's booking area where phones are located.

Brown, who had taken Sabbie to the nurse that morning, grabbed Sabbie from behind by the collar of his shirt and threw him to the floor.

"Mr. Sabbie's pants came down as Officer Brown was spinning him around, and at one point, Mr. Sabbie's entire body was off the ground and parallel to the floor," the report states.

The report quotes LaSalle's "Use of Force Policy" as stating that officers shall restrict the use of physical force to instances of self-defense, protection of others, prevention of escape and protection of property only as a "last resort."

After Sabbie landed, other officers arrived. Brown, Derrick, Lomax, Palmer and Boozer piled on top of Sabbie and attempted to place him in handcuffs. Jones, Johnson and Venable were present as well.

Sabbie did not fight the officers or make threatening statements though Sabbie can be heard on handheld video footage repeatedly stating, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

Johnson, a supervisor, sprayed pepper spray into Sabbie's face. According to evidence cited in the report, the use of pepper spray on Sabbie under the circumstances violated LaSalle's own Use of Force Policy.

Venable did not decontaminate Sabbie after his exposure to the noxious spray as LaSalle's protocol directs. The officers then put Sabbie in a shower where he collapses and is threatened with additional pepper spray. Eventually he is thrown into a cell in his wet clothes, still contaminated with pepper spray.

As Sabbie is moved into the cell, his hands are cuffed behind his back. At some point, his hands, still cuffed, are in front of him. Officers agree in their depositions that Sabbie's cuffed hands must have been rotated above and over his head.

"According to medical experts, Mr. Sabbie may have sustained severe shoulder damage when this occurred and required an immediate medical evaluation," the report states.

About an hour-and-a-half after Sabbie is left in his cell, Boozer and Derrick return to Sabbie's cell and photograph him to document the use-of-force. In the photo, Sabbie is lying on the floor, his arms at an angle above his heads, his pants still pulled down and his genitals exposed and a white foam can be seen in his nose.

According to an expert for the plaintiff, Sabbie appeared deceased in the photos taken at 6 p.m. July 21, 2015, and that the white substance in his nose was "pulmonary edema foam -literally lung fluid."

Officers were supposed to make routine 30-minute checks but Derrick created a record showing he did a housing check after he had already left work, the report states.

Craven's report finds there is sufficient proof that officers and nurses were deliberately indifferent to Sabbie's suffering, that they falsified records and that they failed to follow or were not trained in LaSalle's policies and procedures.

The case is scheduled for jury selection April 15 before U.S. District Judge Robert Schroeder III in Texarkana's downtown federal building.

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