A 26-year-old Ottawa County Jail inmate died in 2015 after being denied medical treatment for days and being told by jail staffers to quit faking his symptoms, a civil rights lawsuit filed Friday in Tulsa federal court claims.
The family of Terral Brooks Ellis II filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, seeking an unspecified amount of actual, compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $75,000.
The lawsuit names several past and current Ottawa County officials, a nurse who it alleges said Ellis was faking his symptoms, and an ambulance company.
“It is our firm belief that Terral should be here today, and that his death resulted from negligence and deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs,” attorney Dan Smolen said in a statement issued in response to a request for comment on the lawsuit. There is evidence, Smolen said, that jail personnel told a paramedic that Ellis was faking an illness and that he should not be taken to a hospital.
Ellis was in “good health” when he was booked into the Ottawa County Jail in early October 2015, according to the complaint. An unspecified time later, his health began to decline and he exhibited “serious and obvious health needs,” the lawsuit states.
“For many days prior to his death, Ellis had exhibited a serious medical need, and/or complained to detention staff and medical staff … of seizures, convulsions, uncontrollable sweating, dehydration and the inability to walk, along with pain in his back, ribs and internal organs,” according to the complaint.
One day prior to his death on Oct. 22, 2015, Ellis and another inmate, who had been helping him eat and urinate in a cup, requested medical attention but were denied, according to the lawsuit.
A nurse, identified as Theresa Horn, told Ellis that he needed to “stop faking it and to lay down and serve his time,” the lawsuit alleges.
Later the same day, Ellis had multiple seizures, according to the complaint. After initially ignoring Ellis, jail staff summoned an ambulance. Officers at the jail told paramedics that Ellis was still faking his illness and that the county was not going to “foot the bill” for his care at the hospital, the complaint alleges.
Ambulance personnel left the jail without treating or taking Ellis to the hospital, the complaint says.
Jail staff then moved Ellis to an isolation cell, where he was found to be in respiratory distress about 1:50 p.m. Oct. 22, according to the complaint.
Ellis was pronounced dead about an hour after being taken to a Miami, Oklahoma, hospital, the lawsuit states.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Ellis died of sepsis and pneumonia.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Ottawa County Board of County Commissioners, Ottawa County Sheriff Jeremy Floyd in his official capacity, former Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow, Horn, three jail employees, two ambulance workers and Baptist Healthcare of Oklahoma, which operated the ambulance service.
Floyd, who was not sheriff at the time of Ellis’ death, is being sued as a representative of the Sheriff’s Office. He could not be reached for comment.
In addition to the civil rights and wrongful death claims, the lawsuit alleges that Durborow or others acting on his behalf removed two digital video recorders and hard drives from the jail and replaced them with new ones in an attempt to cover up the deliberate indifference to Ellis’ medical needs.
The lawsuit bears some of the same claims as those made against Tulsa County in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Elliott Williams, who died in 2011 after languishing for days with a broken neck in a jail medical cell.
The Ellises are represented by Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, the same firm that won a $10.25 million jury verdict for the Williams family in March.
In that case, evidence showed that jail staff ignored Williams’ pleas for help, with some staff believing that he was faking his symptoms.
The Ellis lawsuit is assigned to U.S. District Judge John Dowdell, who presided over the Williams trial.
“Terral Ellis was just 26 years old when he died,” Smolen said. “He left behind a young child. He had his whole life ahead of him. We have filed this lawsuit in hopes of uncovering and exposing the truth, and in seeking a level of justice for Terral’s estate.”