Lawsuit alleges ‘gross systemic deficiencies’ at county jail

EVERETT — The mother of Michael Saffioti, who died in the Snohomish County Jail in July 2012, is alleging that her son’s death was the result of ingrained problems at the county-run lockup, including deliberate indifference among some of its staff.

“Michael’s death was not only a result of individual employees ignoring Michael’s grave medical needs, but also of the unexplainable gross systemic deficiencies at the Snohomish County Jail,” said Cheryl Snow, one of the family’s attorneys.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges several employees, including a corrections officer and four jail nurses, ignored Saffioti’s medical needs when he began to suffer an apparent allergic reaction after eating breakfast.

The 14-page complaint references email from a county supervisor raising questions about the quality of care provided by jail nurses. It also recounts findings from outside corrections experts, including the National Institute of Corrections, that confirmed substandard medical care for inmates.

Those reviews were requested by Sheriff Ty Trenary, who has been enacting changes at the jail since shortly after taking over in mid-2013. Among the reforms Trenary has made is increased medical screening for inmates, hiring an on-call doctor and better management of medical records for those who wind up behind bars. He’s also tightened up on bookings, reducing the jail’s population as a way to further improve safety.

Saffioti was 22 years old when he turned himself in on a Lynnwood misdemeanor marijuana possession warrant July 2, 2012. He was a Lynnwood prisoner, but county jail officials agreed to detain him because the city lockup was unable to adequately address his medical issues.

Saffioti was taking a number of medications, suffered from asthma and was severely allergic to dairy products, according to court papers.

The lawsuit details allegations of multiple ways jail officials knew, or should have known, that Saffioti risked death from anaphylactic shock.

Saffioti raised questions about the food he was served, according to the lawsuit. He was told to eat what he was given or go without. Booked only a few hours earlier, nobody at the jail had designated him for a special diet, the lawsuit says.

When he began to have a physical reaction to oatmeal that unbeknownst to him contained dairy products, a corrections deputy told Saffioti to go to his cell and remain in lockdown while nurses were alerted.

His lawyers detailed how the corrections deputy then went on break and how nurses didn’t come to his cell — information that was confirmed by the sheriff’s office internal investigation. When nurses were summoned about 30 minutes later, they didn’t bring with them epinephrine, which could have helped with the allergic reaction, the lawsuit says.

Saffioti had been in the jail other three times and one on of those stays had suffered an allergic reaction to dairy exposure that was severe enough that he needed to be rushed to an Everett hospital emergency room.

“In an email describing this medical emergency, a nursing supervisor wrote, ‘will have anaphylaxis for an exposure even from equipment used for milk product …. last time had to call the aid car. Yikes,’” according to the lawsuit.

Moreover, the doctor who helped Saffioti manage his allergies had previously faxed the jail’s medical unit 47 pages of records and a letter describing the man’s risk of a life-threatening reaction if exposed to dairy products, the lawsuit says.

“Based on his past medical history and history of anaphylaxis from exposure to dairy, Michael fully understood that without necessary medical intervention his condition was fatal,” the lawsuit says. His attorneys suggest he suffered “extreme fear” as the minutes passed in his cell and help did not arrive.

Rose Saffioti filed the lawsuit on behalf of her son’s estate. It says the lack of timely medical treatment amounted to a violation of Saffioti’s civil rights.

She earlier had filed a $10 million damage claim against the county.

County attorneys had anticipated that a lawsuit would be filed, said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.

It is not the first lawsuit Rose Saffioti has filed against the county in connection with her son’s death.

In October, her attorneys filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court to gain access to jail surveillance camera footage after a protracted public records fight. The county initially denied the video existed.

Saffioti’s attorneys ultimately received the footage they were seeking.

The attorneys are awaiting trial on that case and are pursuing public records penalties against the county “for the past failure to address disclosure of the video,” Snow said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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