Family claims state negligent in suicide

See Our Videos

by Dirk Perrefort
Connecticut Post

September 28, 2005

The family of a young man who committed suicide while in the state's care is claiming negligence in a lawsuit recently brought against the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

"There was a series of negligent events that led to his death," said Antonio Ponvert III, the lawyer for the Sawyer family of Orange. "They have a lot of questions they want answered so that this doesn't happen to anyone else in the future."

Jason Sawyer, 21, was brought to the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown in March 2003 for a pre-sentence evaluation by the facility's Whiting Forensic Division. The hospital is operated by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Sawyer had been sent to the hospital after being convicted of first-degree robbery for holding up a gas station attendant at knifepoint.

Sawyer, who was diagnosed with major depression disorder, had attempted suicide on several previous occasions, Ponvert said. He added that a psychologist had reported in May that Sawyer was likely to attempt suicide again and required a "high level of supervision." Five days later Sawyer, who was taken off 24-hour surveillance, hung himself by tying bed sheets to a ventilation grill.

"At the time, he wasn't allowed to have bed sheets because of a previous suicide attempt," Ponvert said. "But hospital officials allowed another patient to stay in Sawyer's room who brought his own sheets."

He added that Sawyer was an articulate man whose life could have been turned around given the proper treatment.

"The family was devastated," Ponvert said. "Time has not healed their wounds."

Sawyer's suicide was investigated by the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. The agency issued a report in January that states there was "sufficient evidence to support a finding of neglect." Investigators also found "major programmatic failings" and sufficient evidence to conclude that Sawyer's suicidal potential was "grossly underestimated."

Wayne Dailey, a spokesman for the state's mental health department, declined to comment on the matter.

"It's a standard policy not to comment on pending cases," he said.