Lawsuit claims Silverdale jail staff assumed inmate was constipated addict, let him die of bleeding ulcer

Family sues Hamilton County and former Sheriff Jim Hammond for $4.5 million

Contributed Photo / Laurie and Donald Fitzgerald
Contributed Photo / Laurie and Donald Fitzgerald

The sister of a Chattanooga man who died in the custody of Silverdale Detention Center last year has filed a $4.5 million wrongful death lawsuit against Hamilton County and former Sheriff Jim Hammond.

Laurie Fitzgerald, whose brother Donald Fitzgerald died in June of a ruptured stomach ulcer, also names three nurses and the medical director employed by the Alabama-based medical provider for the detention center, Quality Correctional Health Care, as defendants.

The complaint filed Wednesday seeks $2 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. The sister's attorneys declined to comment.

(READ MORE: Family blames Hamilton County for death of Silverdale inmate, sues for $20 million)

Sharon M. Milling, assistant county attorney, issued a statement.

"Because issues in pending lawsuits are to be adjudicated in the courts rather than referred to media sources as a means of exerting pressure on an opposite party, Hamilton county will confine its response to written pleadings which will be filed in this case once service has been effected and the county is required to respond," the statement said.

Hammond declined to comment.

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The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga claims medical staff and correctional staff ignored Fitzgerald's complaints of stomach pain, saying he was making it up and going through narcotic withdrawal instead.

Fitzgerald, who had previous citations for panhandling, was arrested June 2, 2022, by Chattanooga police after responding Officer Skyler Long answered a call of a traffic offense on the Shallowford Road exit of Interstate 75, according to a sworn affidavit from the department.

Long found Fitzgerald panhandling while interfering with traffic and in possession of drug paraphernalia near the exit, according to the affidavit.

Fitzgerald, whose name is spelled Fitsgerald in some court documents, pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and obstructing a highway or other passageway, both misdemeanor charges. He was due to be released from Silverdale last year on June 18.

After Fitzgerald complained of constant abdominal pain on June 10, Silverdale medical staff gave him multiple laxatives and an injection for pain, according to the lawsuit. Silverdale does not have an X-ray machine, and medical staff used the body-scanning machine at the detention center's entrance to conduct a body scan instead of immediately taking Fitzgerald to a hospital, the lawsuit said.

"He lost consciousness and stopped breathing immediately after or during the scan," the lawsuit said.

(READ MORE: Alabama man claiming sexual assault, stabbing at Silverdale sues Hamilton County)

Believing Fitzgerald was suffering from a fentanyl or opioid overdose, the staff gave him at least five doses of Narcan — used to reverse opioid overdoses — before calling 911, according to the lawsuit. He was transported to Parkridge Hospital, and the incident was reported as a drug overdose, the lawsuit said.

Fitzgerald died two days later at Parkridge. He was 49.

The medical examiner's report listed Fitzgerald's cause of death as a "perforated bleeding duodenal ulcer," or a hemorrhaging hole in the stomach.

"The ulcer went undetected by the medical staff at the jail because it was falsely assumed that Mr. Fitzgerald was suffering symptoms of an opioid addiction (including constipation) despite there being no evidence of any such addiction or ingestion of opioid narcotics or narcotics of any kind," the lawsuit said.

(READ MORE: Two more lawsuits filed against Hamilton County involving Silverdale)

The lawsuit claims staff miscommunicated Fitzgerald's condition to emergency personnel and hospital staff.

"He was not asked if he had ingested any narcotics, nor was any further testing done to verify or negate the belief that he ingested narcotics," the lawsuit said. "The jail communicated the false medical information to EMS and ultimately, his medical team at Parkridge.

"Had Mr. Fitzgerald been properly assessed for his symptoms, he would not have essentially been bleeding to death while being treated as an addict constipated from opioid use."

Fitzgerald's death was not included by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in its list of in-custody deaths reported to the state earlier this year as required by law. The Sheriff's Office reported Fitzgerald's death to the state after the omission was identified by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"In order to rectify the issue, his in-custody death was reported this morning," Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea said in an email in February. "Theoretically, there should be a list, and from now on, there will be a comprehensive list. We keep records, but we know we can do a better job."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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