FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - The parents of a man who died inside the Gwinnett County jail are demanding $10 million, blaming their son's death on the "negligent, reckless" actions of sheriff's deputies.
Last fall, the FOX 5 I-Team first brought you the story of Chris Howard and how jailers ignored a doctor's order to get him to the medical unit "immediately" after he suffered a seizure. The 23-year-old Hall County man lived with a genetic disorder called Medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency or MCADD. The condition can sometimes lead to low blood sugar levels.
His girl friend Laurel Kate Anderson said Howard was always healthy and his parents said he had never had any seizures before.
The circumstances that led to his death began on February 15, 2017, after Howard failed a drug test. He was on probation for a New Year's Day drunk driving incident, his only brush with law enforcement. He wound up in the Gwinnett County jail and called Laurel Kate as soon as he could.
“So when I talked to him at the jail I said Chris, make sure you eat something because you haven't eaten anything all day," she remembered. Turns out he had already eaten a sandwich provided by jailers.
Surveillance video shows Howard ending his conversation with his girl friend and immediately dropping to the floor of the intake cell. Deputies and nurses quickly arrived. According to an internal affairs report, the doctor on call ordered Chris be taken upstairs to the infirmary "immediately."
Instead, deputies decided to put him in an observation cell, with no one assigned to observe him. Surveillance video shows Howard struggling to stand up, feebly trying to attract the attention of jailers who would occasionally pass by his cell. He was left alone for 30 minutes. His girl friend still can't understand.
“Why would someone watch him begging for life... crawling up the door... crawling up the side of the cell?" she asked. "How could someone watch that happen and not feel like I want to help them?"
None of the deputies interviewed by internal affairs investigators seemed to think Chris' life was in any danger as they walked by Cell 13 that night.
“I saw the man peer over the window ledge a view times," explained Lt. James Casey. "He appeared... looked kind of tired. Kind of weak. But nothing to me. Nothing that drew my attention.”
Investigators tried to find out why the squad leader of the jail's Rapid Response Team chose to ignore the doctor's order.
“It was ultimately your decision to leave him in 13 without telling a supervisor that's what you were doing," the IA investigator pointed out to deputy Dominique Dennis. "You never talked to anybody."
"I did not," admitted Dennis.
Chris would arrive at the jail infirmary nearly an hour after the doctor first ordered deputies to take him. He would go into cardiac arrest on the way there, and die two days later at Gwinnett Medical.
Laurel Kate never left his side.
“I prayed the entire time that there would be a miracle," she cried. "But... that wasn't the case.”
An autopsy later ruled Chris died from complications from that genetic disease. At the time of her report, the medical examiner did not know about the delay in getting him to medical, but last year she told the FOX 5 I-Team she doubted it played a role in his death.
Laurel Kate believes his death was preventable.
"100 percent," she declared.
No deputies were ever disciplined, but Chris' parents place the blame squarely on them. A notice of claims letter sent to Gwinnett County last month accuses deputies of “negligent, reckless, and intentional acts... that “caused (Chris') pain and suffering, and untimely death.”
They demand “no less than Ten Million dollars.” Gwinnett County had no comment.
Laurel Kate met us at a park along Lake Lanier, a place where she and Chris spent so many happy days. Even a year after his death, none of what happened seems to register to the woman who spent so much time with him.
“It's just not real to me," she admitted. "I feel like Chris is out of town. Or... I just haven't seen him for a while. I can't wrap my head around the fact that I won't see him again in this life.”
She's hoping his parents' legal fight can improve conditions for others who need medical care in a place where they can make no decisions of their own.
“To know Chris was so helpless, and fighting so hard for his life is so sickening," she stressed. “I just have to hope that this will make a difference. And change things for other people”
Gwinnett County also faces a separate federal civil rights lawsuit involving its use of restraint chairs inside the jail. That case has not been set for trial.