LEE COUNTY — The widow of an Ohio man killed by heavy exposure to pepper spray in the Lee County Jail has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the jail’s medical contractor and a slate of deputies and nurses involved in the 2009 death.
Twenty individuals are named in the suit, filed in federal court in Fort Myers, including Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott and the director of Prison Health Services, the jail medical provider.
In a 59-page complaint, Joyce Christie, of Girard, Ohio, contends all violated her husband’s civil rights through their “acts, failures to act, and omissions committed, and policies, procedures, and customs in place.” The defendants used excessive force that showed “deliberate indifference” and “callous disregard” for her husband’s welfare, the lawsuit asserts.
The lawsuit requests an unnamed amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and it asks the court to curtail jail practices that resulted in the death, as well as force better care of inmates from medical contractor Prison Health Services.
Nicholas Christie, 62, a retired boilermaker, died from cardiac arrest on May 31, following his exposure to pepper spray 10 times in 43 hours as an inmate at the jail.
Arrested four days earlier on trespassing charges, Christie was placed in an observation wing after becoming loud. As he continued acting up, jailers sprayed him repeatedly, fogged his cell with the chemical and eventually restrained him in a chair.
He was rushed to Gulf Coast Medical Center and died two days later. The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide.
An investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s Office found that Nicholas Christie had refused to tell nurses about his heart condition during booking. It also noted that nurses checked Christie after each application of the spray.
Nurse Maria Canete told investigators that when she warned one of the jailers, Kurtis Calhoun, about the level of pepper spray being used, he called it “good training for everyone,” and laughed.
Another nurse, Linda Sundo, said the spray was heavy in the observation ward and that during one check of Christie, she didn’t get very close to him, for fear of the chemical. Canete, Calhoun and Sundo are all named in the complaint.
The State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute any of the individuals involved, concluding that Christie represented a threat and that jailers didn’t show “reckless disregard” for his life.
Scott declined to review jail policies following the investigation.
In an e-mail Thursday, Scott called the death tragic and he repeated his support for the Sheriff’s Office investigation. He said he preferred to limit further comment on the case.
Seven corrections deputies and three of their supervisors are named in the complaint. Five licensed nurses are named, as are a social worker and two other health personnel.
The complaint contends that medical staff denied medical attention to Nicholas Christie. It holds that nurses had screened Christie on March 25, when he was arrested for the first time on similar charges.
It also states that Christie had a list of prescriptions on him when he came into the jail and that his wife called the jail multiple times to insist he be taken to a hospital.
Nicholas Christie was visiting his brother in Naples at the time, when he stopped taking his prescription medications and started acting erratically. Asked to leave the Naples home, he ended up at a North Fort Myers motel, where he was twice arrested for trespassing.
Joyce Christie is being represented by law firms in Pensacola and Cleveland, Ohio.
Attorney Nicholas DiCello, of Spangenberg, Shibley & Liber in Cleveland, said that after the disappointment following prosecutors’ decision not to charge anyone, Joyce Christie is looking forward to a trial.
“I know that she’s relieved that we can start moving forward,” he said.