Family Files Lawsuit After Woman Dies In Carroll County Jail

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BERRYVILLE (KFSM) -- The family of a woman who died while in the custody of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office filed a lawsuit Monday (August 10) against a jail nurse and several sheriff’s deputies.

The family of Sylvia Donelson, 47, who died at the Carroll County Jail on November 11, 2014, filed a wrongful death lawsuit claiming the nurse and deputies did not tend to her medical needs, which resulted in her death.

An autopsy performed on Donelson’s body states her cause of death was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease with bipolar disorder listed as a contributing cause.

Donelson’s medical records show she had a history of hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, asthma and substance abuse that includes alcohol and methamphetamine. She also had a history of psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder with psychosis, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to medical records.

The lawsuit states Donelson “was no stranger to the Carroll County Jail, nor its jailers” and had been incarcerated there at least five times.

Until she was arrested on July 31, 2014, Donelson had been previously arrested for public intoxication, second-degree battery, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, filing a false police report and terroristic threatening, according to court records. Each time she was booked out of jail on her own recognizance or surety bond, records show.

On July 31, 2014, Donelson was arrested for violating the terms of her previous release for failing to appear for a scheduled mental evaluation in connection to prior charges and she remained at the jail until she died in November, according to court records.

On November 10, 2014 at 6 a.m., the day before her death, two officers found Donelson laying on the floor of her cell in the same position she had been in since the day before, according to the lawsuit. When spoken to, Donelson responded by mumbling, so the officers took her to a padded cell in the booking area where she could be watch more closely, the lawsuit states.

On November 11, 2014 at 6 a.m., an officer arrived on duty and was told Donelson had not eaten in 24 hours, so the officer called Crystal Brinton, a jail nurse, according to the lawsuit. Another officer, Alecha McNabb, also arrived at 6 a.m. and was told to go to Donelson’s cell where she found Donelson lying face down in her own urine with a suicide blanket over her, the lawsuit states.

At 7:30 a.m., the nurse arrived and she and McNabb attempted to get Donelson to sit up, according to the lawsuit. Donelson would not communicate with them and could only mumble, the lawsuit notes. Brinton and the officer got Donelson in a wheelchair and rolled her into the shower to wash her, then they put her in a pickle suit, which is a type of restraint, and put her back in the holding cell, the lawsuit states.

Donelson continued to refuse to eat, so the nurse “stuffed a piece of peanut butter sandwich in her mouth,” but Donelson was unable to eat it, according to the lawsuit.

At 7:50 a.m., Officer Steven Snyder arrived at the jail and was told Donelson’s medical and mental conditions were deteriorating and she had not been eating or drinking since the day before, the lawsuit states.

The nurse told officers Snyder and Andrea Morrell that Donelson’s vital signs were normal, but she should be monitored throughout the day, so officers were instructed to check on her often, according to the lawsuit.

At approximately noon, McNabb found that Donelson still had the peanut butter sandwich in her mouth and was unresponsive and drooling, the lawsuit states. At about 1:30 p.m., McNabb and another officer attempted to get Donelson to drink a protein shake, according to the lawsuit. Officer Regina Donahue “dug part of the sandwich out of [Donelson’s] mouth” and helped her sit up against the wall, the lawsuit states.

At about 2 p.m., an officer contacted a deputy prosecuting attorney to advise him Donelson needed to be moved to a mental institution and then called emergency medical services to assess her, according to the lawsuit.

An EMT with Carroll County Regional Medical Center found Donelson’s vital signs to be within normal limits, but said she should be examined by a doctor and felt that she needed to be hospitalized, the lawsuit states.

McNabb checked on Donelson every fifteen minutes throughout her shift and her condition remained the same, according to the lawsuit. Officer Orva Snow and Beverly Taylor came on duty at 6 p.m. and later found Donelson in a fetal position, unresponsive and shaking, the lawsuit states.

At 9:30 p.m., Taylor and officer Andrus Lemus tried to talk to Donelson, but did not get a response, although Taylor states she saw Donelson’s chest rise and fall, according to the lawsuit.

At 10:15 p.m. Snow found Donelson was unresponsive and could not detect a pulse or any vital signs, the lawsuit states. EMTs were called and began resuscitation efforts, but could not revive Donelson and she was pronounced dead at about 11:15 p.m. on November 11, 2014, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims Donelson’s “mental and physical limitations were readily apparent to anyone who observed her.” During a prior incarceration in 2013, officers at the Carroll County Jail learned Donelson had been treated for mental illness at a health clinic in Clinton, Arkansas, the lawsuit states. The clinic sent the jail a list of Donelson’s medications, which included trazodone, to treat depression, lexapro, to treat anxiety, saphris, an anti-psychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, ventolin, to treat bronchospasm, and acetaminophen, a pain reliever, according to the lawsuit.

When Donelson was jailed on July 31, 2014, the Carroll County Jail nurse noted that Donelson was taking trazodone, lithium, to treat bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, and lorazepam, to treat anxiety disorders, the lawsuit states. The nurse also noted Donelson had recently been to a mental health facility in Nashville, Tennessee, according to the lawsuit. A discharge summary from the facility shows Donelson was treated there for several days in July and was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and gout.

On August 6, 2014, Donelson was taken to a doctor who noted she had been off her medications for 10 days and was hearing voices and was scared, the lawsuit states. During her incarceration Donelson was seen by the nurse and a doctor for chest pain associated with panic attacks every two or three days and was eventually put on suicide watch in September because of self-mutilation, according to the lawsuit.

In mid-October, Donelson was put in a pickle suit and put in a cell near the booking area for observation because jailers feared she was going to hurt herself or someone else, the lawsuit states. She was moved into the booking cell again later that month after records indicated she had the shakes and other inmates reported she could not dress herself, according to the lawsuit.

Jail records do not indicate Donelson was ever moved back to the general population and remained in the booking area cell until her death on November 11, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants knew of Donelson’s condition and needs and “chose to deliberately disregard those serious medical needs.” The lawsuit states the defendant’s deliberate indifference to Donelson’s medical needs constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

In the lawsuit, Donelson’s family seeks compensatory damages for Donelson’s pain, suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life and wrongful death, mental anguish and pecuniary damages for the suffering experienced by Donelson’s family and punitive damages for the defendants’ willful, malicious and reckless conduct.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office said they cannot comment on the lawsuit.