LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - A lawsuit accuses Gwinnett County jail staff of using "unnecessary and excessive force" on a 23-year-old man who it turns out was suffering a massive seizure.
The incident happened on February 15, 2017. Instead of calling 911, deputies restrained a clearly suffering Chris Howard and eventually left him in a cell alone. He later suffered a cardiac arrest and died. The lawsuit claims the jail's medical staff and the Rapid Response Team made crucial mistakes that likely led to his “slow and painful death.”
“They didn't do what they were supposed to," Robert Howard told the FOX 5 I-Team months after his son's death. "I think they should have called the EMTs when he had his first seizure.”
Howard was on probation from a drunk driving arrest when he tested positive for marijuana. He and his girlfriend had shared a marijuana cookie on Valentine's Day. He had never been in trouble with law enforcement before.
He was brought to the Gwinnett County jail after that failed drug test and a few hours later collapsed as his body went into convulsions.
The jail surveillance video seems to show Chris suffering from multiple seizures. But the lawsuit claims it was one seizure that actually lasted at least 12 minutes. Instead of calling 911, the video shows the jail's Rapid Response Team holding down Howard, eventually handcuffing and putting him into a restraint chair. Deputies later told internal affairs investigators it was for his own safety.
“He was being very aggressive.” senior deputy Juan Lopez-Razo explained.
But the Sheriff's Professional Standards unit pushed back at those claims that medical staff would have been in danger if they had not handcuffed Howard.
“You knew he wasn't fighting," Sgt. Renee Walker pointed out. "It was coming out of a mental state of mind."
"Yes,” agreed senior deputy Dominique Dennis.
According to the internal affairs file, nurses told deputies to take Howard directly to the jail clinic. Instead, the Rapid Response Team decided to put him in an observation cell -- where he was only occasionally observed during an agonizing stay lasting more than a half hour.
Eventually, a nurse discovered Howard and insisted again he be moved to the medical unit. On the way there, Howard would go into cardiac arrest. When he finally did reach the hospital, Chris Howard would be pronounced dead.
“Why would someone watch him begging for his life... crawling up the door... crawling up the side of the cell.. .how could someone watch that happen and not feel like I want to help them?” Howard's girlfriend Laurel Kate Anderson said last year.
Sheriff Butch Conway could not comment on pending litigation but did say "Chris' death was a tragic loss and I feel for the Howard family."
In addition to the sheriff and Rapid Response Team members, the Howard family is also suing Correct Care Solutions, the company that provides medical services to inmates. According to the lawsuit, anyone who suffers a seizure lasting longer than five minutes should be sent immediately not to the jail clinic, but to the hospital.
"The person and their brain are being put under high-stress situation," explained Kiana Lawrence of the Epilepsy Foundation of Georgia. "When it goes into an extended amount of time which is over five minutes, they're at a higher risk for a multitude of things."
Chris Howard did not have epilepsy. He suffered from a rare genetic disease that can send blood sugars plummeting.
While the Epilepsy Foundation of Georgia would not comment specifically on the Howard case, Lawrence says all convulsive seizures should be treated the same. In fact, she pushes that when speaking to law enforcement groups.
Call 9-1-1. Don't restrain. Stay calm. Stay with them.
"So I'm trying to make a change," she explained. "Giving them that subtle and gentle touch and having more of an open understanding about what's happening so things like this are less likely to happen in the future."
To learn more about how to handle someone suffering from a seizure, go to epilepsyga.org