April 12, 2014

Lawsuit filed in Chester Co. inmate’s death

The fiancee of a Chester County Detention Center inmate who died of a heart attack while in jail blames the Sheriff’s Office and a local doctor for failing to properly treat him four years ago, according to a lawsuit she filed.

The fiancee of a Chester County Detention Center inmate who died of a heart attack while in jail blames the Sheriff’s Office and a local doctor for failing to properly treat him four years ago, according to a lawsuit she filed.

Lawyers for the county deny those claims, saying Richard Pettit was responsible for the injuries that led to his death. An attorney representing the doctor claims the dead man suffered from muscular skeletal pain, not a heart condition.

Angela Newland, Pettit’s fiancee at the time of his death and representative for his estate, initially filed a suit against the Sheriff’s Office in 2012. Last October, she also sued Dr. Richard Hughes, accusing him of medical malpractice and negligence. The two lawsuits were recently merged.

In the suit, Newland claims detention center staff failed to take proper action to save Pettit’s life. She also alleges that Hughes, who was contracted to provide medical care to Chester County inmates, violated contract terms because he did not fulfill his obligations as a medical care professional. She seeks payment for Pettit’s funeral and burial expenses, as well as damages for his pain and suffering.

Newland referred comments to her lawyer, Dennis Bolt of Columbia, who could not be reached last week. Hughes did not return requests for comment.

Complaints of pain

Pettit, according to court documents, was booked into the Chester County Detention Center in May 2010, accused of failing to pay child support. During the booking process, Pettit, 37, of Fort Lawn, told jail staff about his history of heart disease and shortness of breath, according to the lawsuit.

He began to complain about pain on the left side of his chest, telling a nurse that the pain felt like someone taking their fist and “pushing it against my armpit,” according to court documents. He also told medical staff he had trouble breathing.

After taking his blood pressure, the nurse gave him ibuprofen and told him to rest in cool air. Newland says in the lawsuit that Pettit’s blood pressure was high.

He continued to experience pain, the lawsuit states, before he sought help from Hughes, who prescribed Pettit more ibuprofen. Four times in June, Pettit complained of chest and armpit pain. He was seen twice by a nurse and twice by Hughes, and each time he was given a dosage of ibuprofen.

On June 27, Pettit began having spasms, the lawsuit claims, and staggered out of his cell. He stumbled against a picnic table and fell to the ground.

“Guards stood over him while he lay on the floor,” court documents allege, before EMS was called to the jail. A guard bent down and attempted CPR. Pettit was pronounced dead at 9:06 p.m.

Deputies began an internal investigation, but closed it on July 1. In a report, the investigator wrote that information about the case was turned over to Joan E. Winters, Chester County attorney, “who will handle...civil litigation should it arise,” a sheriff’s report shows.

But Newland claims that jail employees failed to properly monitor Pettit’s condition and did not adequately respond to his requests for medical attention. She says they did not administer first aid and other life-saving measures once he went into cardiac arrest.

She accuses Hughes of “ignoring clear indications of heart disease,” failing to monitor the nursing staff and failing to consult or refer Pettit to a cardiologist or other medical professional. She says Pettit suffered at least one prior heart attack while incarcerated.

Two days before he died, Pettit visited one of Hughes’ nurses after complaining of chest pain and pain in his left arm from his shoulder to his elbow, Newland claims. The nurse allegedly told him to stay out of the heat and avoid smoking.

Allegations denied

Lawyers for the county deny Newland’s allegations. They are requesting proof in Pettit’s medical records that he was given ibuprofen to treat a heart condition, which they say he never disclosed.

Kassi Sandifer, a Columbia attorney, is representing the county, Winters said. Winters, the county attorney, said the county’s insurance company retains private law firms to argue wrongful death suits. In court documents, lawyers write that any injuries Pettit suffered in the jail were the result of his own negligence and reckless behavior. She does not offer specifics and could not be reached last week.

It’s common for defendants in wrongful death claims to place blame solely on the dead person, said Christopher McCool, an attorney who handles wrongful death suits for the Joye Law Firm in North Charleston.

“Typically, in wrongful death cases, in many of the scenarios, the defendants will allege the actions of the plaintiff were the approximate...cause of the death,” he said. “A lot of times in cases, the defense has information on the front end that the plaintiff and plaintiff’s counsel do not have yet.”

Hughes’ lawyer, Spencer King of the Ward Law Firm in Spartanburg, said “very little has been done” on the case.

“This case is just getting started really,” he said.

He plans to meet with Pettit’s relatives to “understand their position and allegations,” he said. He rebuffed Newland’s claims that Pettit suffered from a heart condition, saying his “chest pain-type complaints were not typical of a heart attack,” but of muscular skeletal pain. Hughes said he has not spoken with any medical personnel who performed the autopsy.

Hughes is still contracted with the detention center, King said.

‘Nobody likes trials’

Newland seeks two different types of payment – one for Pettit’s death, and a second for a survival claim, in which she will seek damages for any “conscious pain and suffering” Pettit endured as he died, McCool said.

Newland’s attorneys, he said, will likely try to gauge whether Pettit suffered any prolonged pain or suffering as he was dying – proof they might try to establish through witness testimony from other inmates, paramedics who responded to the scene, or jail surveillance video to determine Pettit’s actions before he died.

A defendant can collect damages up to $300,000 if wrongful death allegations are proven, according to state law. But, a settlement between the parties would not be shocking because “nobody likes trials,” said F. Patrick Hubbard, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“When you have competent lawyers on both sides...bringing their ‘A’ game to the table, they can usually settle,” Hubbard said. “Sometimes, you will get stubborn clients. Once in a while, they will not accept reality about what the claims are.”

Pettit’s medical records will be instrumental for lawyers trying to prove Newland’s claims. “A lot of times, juries want to know...what was this person like...were they living a healthy life?” McCool said.

While Pettit would have been a key witness, Newland’s attorneys still have a chance at winning, though it won’t be easy.

“When you’ve got one vital witness (who) is now dead, that is going to affect the case,” he said. “It’s not your killer,” but, “it makes it harder.”

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