The family of a man who died in 2013 after a brief stay at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center claims in new court documents that authorities turned a blind eye to the inmate’s degenerating health and denied him medical treatment before he became brain dead in the jail.
The inmate, Eric Suffal, 32, died at Interim LSU Hospital several days after jail officials found him unresponsive in his cell.
Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, the Jefferson Parish coroner, ruled his death natural, determining Suffal had suffered a “ruptured duodenal (intestinal) ulcer.”
Suffal’s family, however, contends his death could have been prevented but for the negligence of jail officials.
“He had a hard life in and out of trouble, but he did not deserve this,” Suffal’s mother Tina wrote in an online tribute. “He was in jail, complained of stomach pains and was ignored.”
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did not publicize Suffal’s death, and the case has received almost no previous media attention. But the inmate’s family has quietly pursued a wrongful-death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, where they filed an amended, 32-page claim last month expanding their allegations against Sheriff Newell Normand and CorrectHealth Jefferson, the company that provides medical care to the parish’s inmates.
The new claim, drawing heavily on jail and medical records, portrays Suffal’s demise as gradual, an agonizing decline in which he repeatedly complained of headaches and pain in his abdomen while refusing to eat much of his food. At one point, according to the lawsuit, Suffal began yelling, “I’m gonna die down here.”
“The conditions of confinement of Mr. Suffal constituted punishment, rather than treatment,” the lawsuit claims.
CorrectHealth Jefferson and the Sheriff’s Office declined to comment last week.
The Sheriff’s Office, in response to a public records request filed last year by The New Orleans Advocate, said it had no investigative reports related to Suffal’s death.
Arrest records show a deputy was sent to East Jefferson General Hospital to arrest Suffal on July 11, 2013, on a warrant for domestic abuse battery.
Suffal was being released from the hospital that day. Why he was in the hospital is not clear, but apparently he had swallowed rat poison.
Suffal, a father of three, allegedly had attacked his girlfriend about three weeks earlier, striking her multiple times in the face with a fist.
That incident prompted the issuing of a protective order, the records show, yet Suffal allegedly continued sending text messages to the woman, threatening to burn down her home.
Suffal told jail officials at his booking that he had “recently ingested rat poison for several days in an attempt to self-harm,” the lawsuit says. He scored a “9” on a suicide risk evaluation — indicating high risk — and was placed on suicide watch.
Jail records lack critical details about Suffal’s medical status over the next several days, the lawsuit alleges. One notation indicates he was “angry with his life situation.”
“Entire days passed during which little or no narrative information was recorded on the suicide observation forms,” the lawsuit says, “despite clear indications that such recordings were required of staff.”
About five days after he was jailed, Sheriff’s Office records show, Suffal managed to remove a six-foot aluminum bar from the top of his isolation cell, which he then placed beneath his mattress. “Yes, I did it,” he said when confronted by authorities, who documented the incident as criminal damage to property.
A doctor at the jail examined Suffal six days later, at which point he reported having “headaches associated with nausea and vomiting for several weeks,” the lawsuit says. However, the lawsuit alleges, jail officials made no attempt to obtain Suffal’s medical records from his recent hospital stay.
Officials monitoring inmates on suicide watch that evening noted Suffal was “lying down and reported being unable to get up due to a severe headache,” the lawsuit says. He continued to refuse meals.
On July 24, 2013, jail officials discovered Suffal unresponsive, shaking and drooling in his cell, the lawsuit says. There was an unexplained “hours-long lapse” in Suffal’s monitoring that morning, based on jail records, the lawsuit claims.
Suffal had fallen into a comatose state, the lawsuit says, suffering from “serious brain injuries and abrasions to his head and/or face” that remain unexplained. He died four days later at the hospital.
“No explanation is available either in the (jail) records or the accompanying records for LSU Interim Public Hospital regarding how Mr. Suffal came to be unresponsive, how he came to suffer contusions to his head and face, or how he came to suffer anoxic brain injury,” the lawsuit says.
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Mandy Graeber, said in a telephone interview that Suffal’s family had no inkling he’d even been hospitalized “before all of the end-of-life decisions had been made.”
Suffal, she said, had been removed from a ventilator by the time his family learned of the situation.
Graeber said a ruptured intestinal ulcer isn’t imminently fatal, adding that jail officials had “days of notice” that something was seriously wrong with Suffal.
“It should not be something somebody should die from,” she said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.