Jamal Sutherland’s family sues behavioral health hospital, mental health providers

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 3:55 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 9, 2021 at 6:43 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The family of a man who died in custody at the Charleston County jail has filed a lawsuit against a Lowcountry mental health facility.

Jamal Sutherland, 31, died after Charleston County deputies attempted to forcibly remove him from his cell so that he could attend a bond hearing on an assault charge on the morning of Jan. 5.

That charge stemmed from an incident the night before at Palmetto Behavioral Health in North Charleston, where police were called to respond to a report of a fight between inmates. Sutherland family attorneys have said Sutherland was not involved in that fight but was accused of assaulting a staff member after becoming agitated when North Charleston Police responded to the facility.

SPECIAL SECTION: Jamal Sutherland death

Jamal Sutherland’s mother, Amy, filed the lawsuit Thursday against Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health, Palmetto Behavioral Health Solutions, Wellpath, LLC, a company that provides healthcare to inmates at the Al Cannon Detention Center, and four individual medical providers or agents of the facilities.

Amy Sutherland, whose son, Jamal, died on Jan. 5 at the Charleston County jail, is suing the...
Amy Sutherland, whose son, Jamal, died on Jan. 5 at the Charleston County jail, is suing the behavioral health facility that treated him up to his arrest and the jail's medical provider.(Live 5)

The lawsuit alleges medical negligence and general negligence.

Sutherland voluntarily entered facility days before death

The suit states that Sutherland had a history of mental health disorders including chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Sutherland had voluntarily checked himself into Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health for treatment on Dec. 31, a facility where he had been admitted approximately 10 times since 2009 for treatment of his mental illness, the suit states, adding that his Dec. 31 admission involved “a more severe and acute level of mental health crisis.”

The suit alleges that the facility’s medical records state Sutherland’s symptoms at the time of his last admission were “life-threatening, destructive or disabling to himself or others and that he needed inpatient acute care.”

Court documents state Sutherland’s psychosis and related symptoms worsened between Dec. 31 and Jan. 4 and the suit alleges Palmetto’s staff “failed to take proactive steps to adequately treat” him.

“If Palmetto had taken such proactive steps, the physical altercation which led Palmetto to improperly take steps to have Mr. Sutherland arrested and sent to the Detention Center,

where he was ultimately incarcerated and died on Jan. 5, 2021, could have been avoided entirely,” the suit states.

Sutherland unsuccessfully attempted to leave facility

On Jan. 4, Sutherland reportedly requested to be discharged, but was ordered to be involuntarily admitted because of a risk of harm to himself or others, the suit alleges.

Later that day, “while still in the midst of an ongoing mental health crisis that was improperly treated and managed by Palmetto,” the suit alleges, a physical fight between two other patients led to a fight between Sutherland and a male nurse staff member. As a result of this fight, Palmetto’s nursing staff called police and “insisted” that Sutherland be arrested and “stated an intent to press charges,” which caused Sutherland to be handcuffed and detained to the Charleston County jail on a misdemeanor assault charge, the suit states.

“If Palmetto had provided proper psychiatric treatment to Sutherland or had him transferred to another psychiatric treatment facility or hospital for proper treatment instead of calling the Police Department and sending him to the Detention Center, Sutherland’s death following a forced cell extraction on Jan. 5, 2021, could have been avoided entirely,” the suit alleges.

Suit raises concerns about admission into, treatment inside jail

The lawsuit also claims Palmetto’s staff did not provide the Charleston County jail with Sutherland’s medical history, discharge summary, transfer note or other “sufficient documentation or information” regarding his mental health condition, symptoms, history, or medication needs to allow for “appropriate continuity of care” at the jail.

The suit also claims Sutherland was exhibiting “clear signs of his ongoing serious mental illness crisis” including yelling “delusional, paranoid phrases including, ‘I am the Illumniati’” and “stated aloud that he was the victim of mental illness and had been a patient at Palmetto, including statements made in the presence of a Wellpath nurse or medical staff member present in the booking room.” This, the suit alleges, should have put Wellpath on notice that Sutherland was in need of “immediate psychiatric evaluation and treatment.”

Instead of being placed in the jail’s Special Management Unit, which “specifically houses inmates requiring an immediate mental health evaluation,” he was placed in the jail’s Behavioral Management Unit, which is “reserved for inmates with behavioral problems.”

The lawsuit claims none of WellPath’s medical or mental health professionals completed “an appropriate mental health evaluation” and that the Wellpath staff member present at his admission “somehow inexplicably classified Sutherland as a ‘routine’ mental health patient rather than emergent or urgent, and simply entered a referral for an initial mental health evaluation.” That evaluation, the suit states, did not appear to have been done, or at least done adequately, before he died at the jail the next morning, without receiving “proper psychiatric treatment or psychiatric medication management.”

On the morning of Sutherland’s death, Wellpath sent a medical assistant to attend Sutherland’s cell extraction, “even though Wellpath knew (or should have known) that the Detention Center deputies and their own medical assistant lacked the proper education, training or qualifications to safely complete a forced cell extraction of a patient experiencing a mental health crisis,” the suit states.

After detention deputies used a Taser on him multiple times and he became unresponsive “in the presence of one or more Wellpath staff members, “Wellpath staff did not intervene with an appropriate level of urgency or diligence to assess and treat” him, the suit states. Instead, they delayed in starting and administering CPR efforts or taking other appropriate treatment steps to address his obviously concerning health condition,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit states the family seeks damages for Sutherland’s wrongful death, including his family’s grief and suffering and requests a jury trial. The suit does not specify the specific damages it seeks, but states the damages are “more than $100,000.”

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