The mother of a quadriplegic inmate who died after suffering breathing problems at the D.C. jail has filed a lawsuit accusing the District government and Greater Southeast Community Hospital of failing to give him proper care.
Standing on the courthouse steps yesterday, nearly a year after her son Jonathan Magbie died of acute respiratory failure, Mary Scott said she wants justice -- and $50 million in damages -- for what her suit called the repeated failures and "brutal insensitivity" of the city and hospital.
"My baby lost 40 pounds in four days, and they never lifted a finger. No one should have been treated like that," Scott said. "He needed medical attention, and they turned their backs on him."
Magbie, 27, of Mitchellville, was paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a drunk driver when he was 4. On Sept. 20, 2004, he sat in his mouth-operated wheelchair as D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin sentenced him to 10 days in jail for a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana. He was a first-time offender.
Magbie was taken to the D.C. jail, and within hours he was having difficulty breathing. He was moved to the emergency room at Greater Southeast; the hospital released him to the jail the next day. On Sept. 24, he again was taken to the hospital, where he died that day.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, asserts that Greater Southeast should have treated Magbie for respiratory distress and other serious problems and admitted him Sept. 21, instead of discharging him. It also claims that medical staff members at the D.C. Department of Corrections knew they did not have the ventilator that Magbie said he needed to breathe at night but still put him in a locked jail infirmary room where they couldn't hear him and ignored his rapidly deteriorating health.
Hospital officials have defended the care they provided. Yesterday, they declined to comment on the lawsuit until it is reviewed by lawyers.
D.C. officials also would not immediately comment on the suit. Corrections officials have said Magbie received "all the necessary treatment" while in custody.
Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the National Capital Area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined in filing the suit with attorneys Donald M. Temple and Edward J. Connor, questioned yesterday why neither the city nor the hospital has punished those negligent in Magbie's death.
"I think if a dog was treated this way in an animal shelter, the shelter would have been closed down by now or the director fired," Spitzer said. "As far as I know, no one has suffered any consequences for this needless, painful death."
Investigations were launched after Magbie's death and provided some conclusions about its cause. But his family's legal complaint makes new detailed allegations about what it calls the missteps and "cruel and unusual punishment" by nearly a dozen city and hospital medical staff members. The suit does not name Retchin as a defendant.
A D.C. Department of Health investigation concluded in December that the hospital failed to provide adequate care.
An investigation by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure cleared Retchin of blame, concluding that she acted within the law and made an effort to determine whether the D.C. jail would be able to care for a quadriplegic. That report noted, however, "failures of communication . . . in this tragic sequence of events" in which the judge's staff was actually checking whether a federal prison could take care of a paraplegic.
Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic, died a few days after being sentenced to jail.