Before he died in a Hamilton County Jail cell in 2017, Jeffery Simmons pleaded for medical attention for two hours. He cried, hyperventilated, sweat through his shirt and curled into a fetal position. But as his skin took on a purplish hue, and inmates banged on the door for help, county officials showed "deliberate indifference" to Simmons, a lawsuit filed Thursday alleges.
Simmons told a nurse he had chest pains, a history of family heart problems and methamphetamine in his system when he arrived at the Hamilton County Jail on May 11, 2017, at 3:23 a.m. for a drug-related arrest. He was cleared to enter the jail anyway and chided by officers, attorney Stuart James wrote in the suit, filed in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court.
"[A corporal] reported that he overheard [another officer] raising his voice to Mr. Simmons as he was complaining of chest pain," James wrote. "[The officer] told the [corporal] that a nurse had already checked him and cleared him to come into the jail."
The suit, which asks for a jury trial and lists no damage amount, draws on an internal Hamilton County Sheriff's Office investigation that the Times Free Press reported on earlier this year. That report concluded no department or employee actions contributed to Simmons' death.
But James said Hamilton County and eight of its personnel at the jail acted with "deliberate indifference" to Simmons' worsening condition. Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor could not be reached for comment Thursday and likely has not been served with a copy yet.
The suit comes at a time when Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is trying to secure a $678,000, five-year grant that would help local health and wellness agencies get people with untreated mental illnesses or addictions out of jail and into treatment. As many as 40 percent of people in the jail are estimated to have untreated mental illness, addiction and other problems that keep them cycling in and out of the custody, courts and emergency rooms.
Simmons' suit against Hamilton CountyView
To other inmates, Simmons' pain was visible. One noticed Simmons break out in a "mad sweat" and remove his dripping shirt. A deputy took Simmons out of the cell for a few minutes, the suit says. But when he returned, Simmons dropped to the ground in pain. Though inmates called for help once more, the deputies said "Mr. Simmons was just coming down off of the drugs," James wrote.
The deputies never summoned someone from the medical clinic inside the jail, James added.
At 5:30 a.m., deputies served breakfast to the inmates. But Simmons, who was lying on the floor, could not come out of the cell and needed help, the suit says. "Nevertheless, the deputies elected to finish serving the inmates in the other cells before returning to check on Mr. Simmons," James wrote. "Although, according to the investigative report, 'it was clear he was not feeling well then.'"
After breakfast, the suit says one deputy went into the cell and saw Simmons had lost consciousness, and his breathing was shallow. After two different automatic external defibrillators failed to start his heart, medical personnel transported Simmons to Erlanger hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m., the suit says.
Once the county reads the complaints, its attorney likely will file a response in court. From there, both parties will exchange additional evidence and potentially do depositions as the case moves toward a trial, settlement or dismissal.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.