Mentally Ill Man In State Custody Dies

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Family Files Lawsuit

January 29, 2004

MIDDLETOWN — A severely mentally ill 39-year-old man died while in custody at the state’s maximum security mental hospital as the man’s doctors, nurses and guards watched and did nothing. Today, the man’s family announced it has filed a lawsuit against the State of Connecticut and the individuals who caused, and could have prevented, the death.

James Bell, formerly of Bridgeport, died April 3, 2002, while at Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital. He is at least the third mentally ill African-American man to die in state custody in five years because of inadequate medical care and excessive force by staff.

Mr. Bell, who had been at Connecticut Valley Hospital since 1998, was denied proper treatment and medication to control paranoid schizophrenia. On April 3, 2002, he became profoundly distressed, agitated and aggressive.

Nearly two dozen guards, medical personnel and other staff members forced him down and shackled him on the floor, and then watched as he lay motionless, with eyes closed, making “gurgling” noises, dying. Whiting staff, including James’s treating psychiatrist, later said they thought he was pretending to be asleep.

The Bell family’s attorney, Antonio Ponvert III of Bridgeport-based Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, said the lawsuit was filed in Bridgeport Superior Court.

“James had been at Connecticut Valley Hospital for nearly four years, so the staff was well aware of his desperate need for proper supervision and medication to control his schizophrenia,” Ponvert said. “The staff also was aware of another medical condition that made it difficult or impossible for James to breath while lying on his back. This condition, called Obstructive Sleep Apnea, was aggravated by his obesity.”

“While in state custody, James had gained more than 100 pounds and had become morbidly obese. This problem was not meaningfully addressed by the staff at the hospital,” Ponvert said.

“Despite these obvious medical conditions, on April 3, James was shackled and immobilized on his back, denied emergency medical care, and forced to remain in a position that made it impossible to breath. Yet, when the staff observed these problems, they said he was ‘playing possum.’ James’s doctors and nurses and all of the other state employees on the scene simply did nothing and watched as he died,” Ponvert said.

“When one staff member who checked James’s breathing announced that something was wrong, rather than immediately rendering emergency first aid, the Whiting staff dragged him, still on his back, to an isolation room,” Ponvert said. “They saw his pupils were dilated. They saw blood in his mouth. They saw he was unresponsive, not moving and not breathing.”

“Still, rather than render care, and rather than trying to stimulate his breathing, they twice injected him with a powerful sedative, Thorazine, which produces a severe drop in a patient’s blood pressure – exactly the opposite of what should have been done to James,” Ponvert said. “There was no way he could have survived this grossly negligent mistreatment.”

The lawsuit says the staff at Whiting acted with “reckless or callous indifference to James Bell’s dignity as a human being and to his constitutional and statutory rights.” The suit says staff failed to provide constitutionally adequate medical care, showed deliberate indifference to his safety, and used excessive force. The suit also charges the state provided inadequate training for Whiting personnel.

The lawsuit names 24 defendants, including the Connecticut Dept. of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), DMHAS Commissioner Thomas A. Kirk, Jr., James’s treating psychiatrist Dr. Keith Scott, Whiting nurses, nursing supervisors, agency police officers and other staff members.