County, family settle over jail inmate’s death for $675,000

Marilyn Mowan’s death was ruled a suicide. Her estate claimed she received insufficient supervision.

EVERETT — Snohomish County has reached a legal settlement with the family of Marilyn Mowan, a woman whose 2014 death at the county jail was earlier linked to drinking a lethal amount of water while locked in her cell.

Mowan lived for years with mental illness. The 62-year-old Everett woman’s death had been ruled a suicide by a former associate medical examiner for the county.

Prosecutors questioned that conclusion, and were prepared to fight a civil lawsuit in federal court alleging that Mowan’s problems had been met with indifference by jail staff. Among other things, county attorneys planned to offer testimony from a doctor who concluded that while the woman likely had consumed a lot of water before she collapsed, it wasn’t enough to cause her death. Instead, the doctor pointed to severe, long-term heart problems.

Attorneys for Mowan’s estate had filed a $5 million claim against the county last year. The $675,000 settlement the county agreed to pay is far less than what it has spent to resolve other recent lawsuits over jail deaths. As part of the agreement, the county admitted no wrongdoing.

The County Council voted 4-0 on Wednesday to authorize the settlement.

Cheryl Snow, an attorney representing Mowan’s family, did not return calls or emails about the resolution.

Snow also represented the family of Michael Saffioti, who died in the jail in 2012, at the age of 22. He suffered from asthma and severe allergies. The county settled that case in 2015 for $2.4 million. Another jail death from 2011, where a young woman died slowly from an untreated lung infection, ended in a $1.3 million settlement.

Legal papers filed in in U.S. District Court in Seattle this summer showed a wide gulf between the parties and their theories in Mowan’s case. They didn’t even agree on how she died.

Mowan had been diagnosed with chronic mental illness and a psychiatric disorder that caused her to drink too much water. The problem was so severe that she’d been hospitalized during a previous jail stay after she developed water intoxication and a sodium imbalance.

She had been living in Compass Health mental health housing. Her final arrest came after she slapped a nurse at a triage center in Everett, a place set up to steer people in mental health crises away from the criminal justice system.

Police recommended she be charged with third-degree assault, a felony.

Attorneys for Mowan’s family alleged that she’d received insufficient supervision and care at the jail. Their court pleadings described how her abdomen was distended and water poured from her mouth while emergency crews worked to restore her heartbeat after she collapsed in her cell.

They expected testimony from Dr. Stanley Adams, the former county associate medical examiner who earlier ruled Mowan’s death a suicide, with mental illness, heart disease and water intoxication as contributing factors. A former county medical examiner, Dr. Eric Kiesel, was expected to testify that Adams got it right.

In court papers, county prosecutors detailed the efforts jail staff said were made to monitor Mowan behind bars, including placing her on suicide watch and regularly checking on her when she made statements about potentially harming herself.

They also challenged the plaintiff’s claims about the circumstances of the woman’s death.

They were prepared to offer testimony from Dr. William Watts, a longtime Seattle-area physician who has treated patients with problems similar to Mowan’s. He concluded that a heart problem triggered her collapse.

Mowan likely consumed a lot of water before death, but she would have been in a “stuporous semiconscious state” if it was a lethal amount, the doctor opined. Instead, she was seen walking in her cell seven minutes before collapsing.

Judge Thomas Zilly last month turned down the county’s request to toss out the case, ruling there were enough questions over the facts to warrant a trial. He also had directed the parties to be prepared to discuss resolving the case by mediation.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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