Lawyers on both sides announced Tuesday that a settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit stemming from the June 2015 in-custody death of Michael Sabbie.
Sabbie, 35, was arrested July 19, 2015, by Texarkana, Ark., police following a verbal altercation with his wife, Teresa Sabbie. Sabbie was found dead in his cell on the morning of July 22, 2015, though medical experts for the defense believe Sabbie may have been dead at 6 p.m. the night before when correctional officers entered his cell to photograph him after a use of force on Sabbie that included officers piling on top of Sabbie and pepper spraying his face.
At what was scheduled to be the final pretrial hearing in the case before U.S. Magistrate Judge Caroline Craven, lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants announced a resolution had been reached and asked that proceedings in the case be stayed while they hammer out the final details. Jury selection was scheduled for April 22.
Seattle, Wash., lawyers Erik Heipt and Edwin Budge and Texarkana lawyer David Carter, who represent Sabbie's estate, and Texarkana lawyer Paul Miller, who represents defendants including LaSalle Corrections, Bowie County and the City of Texarkana, Ark., declined to comment until the proposed settlement is finalized.
Also named as defendants are current and former jail staff including 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. The case is pending in the Texarkana Division of the Eastern District of Texas.
Craven thanked the lawyers for resolving the case without a trial, noting the expense, resources and "heartache," the proposed settlement avoids. For now, the terms of the agreement remain undisclosed. Craven also expressed gratitude for retired U.S. District Judge David Folsom, who oversaw the successful mediation of the case.
Last month, Craven issued a 169-page report recommending that defense motions to throw out the case 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. 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. LaSalle's contract to manage the Bi-State jail was recently renewed for another year by the Bowie County Commissioner's Court.
Sabbie reported at intake the night of his arrest 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 or arrange a diabetic diet, evidence cited in the report states. 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.
"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.
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 could use the phone.
Video surveillance footage shows that Sabbie was struggling to breathe as he stood in a tri-pod position with hands on his knees. 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 put Sabbie in a shower where they threaten to use more pepper spray when he collapses. Eventually Sabbie is thrown into a cell in his wet, contaminated clothes. 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 head, 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 described the white substance in his nose as "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.