Prison Allergy Death Sparks $10 Million Lawsuit

in Food Allergy, Milk & Egg
Published: October 10, 2013

The mother of a young man who died of a suspected allergic reaction in a Washington State jail is launching a lawsuit against the county for $10 million.

Michael Saffioti, 22, landed in the Snohomish County Jail on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in July of 2012. He was expected to appear before a judge then be released, but he never made it that far: after a single night in the jail, the young man – who had asthma and severe food allergies – died of what appeared to be an allergic reaction to dairy.

According to the notice of claim, which was filed last week in Snohomish County Court, Saffioti was transferred to the county jail after an officer at the city jail “determined that Michael could not be properly supervised at the city jail due to his medical issues.”

His mother Rose Saffioti, who is trained as a nurse, says she was assured that his medical needs would be met; but according to her claim, her son was assigned to the jail’s mental health unit – not the medical unit – and was not put on a list for a special diet.

After eating oatmeal at breakfast, Saffioti began having difficulty breathing, and repeatedly pressed the emergency button, asked for his asthma medication, and pleaded for someone to call 911. As his breathing grew more labored, other inmates report that they yelled for help, but none arrived until it was too late. Within 30 minutes of eating the oatmeal, he was unconscious; within two hours, he was declared dead in hospital.

The mother’s legal team is arguing that the county jail failed to properly document her son’s allergy to milk products, that officials failed to provide him with a medically approved diet, and that, when he was experiencing the allergic reaction, there was “an absolute and utter failure” to provide medical care.

Rose Saffioti has been advised not to speak about the case, but her lawyer says that she is hoping the lawsuit will lead to answers – and change.

“She knows that something went incredibly wrong and that it needs to be fixed,” says attorney Cheryl Snow, who contends that officials at the county jail have not been forthcoming with information about what occurred that morning. “My client wants them to be penalized to the extent that they get that, because so far she is pretty justified in the impression that they haven’t got it. They have kind of blown her off – and she lost a beautiful 22-year-old boy.”

Shari Ireton, the director of communications for the Snohomish County sheriff’s office, did not return requests for an interview about the lawsuit.

Probe Did Not
Recommend Charges

The Snohomish County medical examiner ruled the death was caused by bronchial asthma; the county sheriff’s office then conducted an investigation and forwarded its findings to the prosecutor’s office with “no criminal referral,” meaning it was not recommending charges. Then in January, the Snohomish County prosecutor’s office confirmed that it would not file criminal charges against anyone in Saffioti’s death.

The National Institute of Corrections also launched a review of Snohomish County’s jails, which have had eight in-custody deaths since 2010, two of which have led to lawsuits over medical care. The institute described a disorganized medical system, and when they requested the medical protocols, “they did not seem to be available” and “it was not clear if they existed.” The review made multiple recommendations for improvement, including: clear medical protocols, weekly testing of emergency procedures, and a clear review process after the death of an inmate.

Snow adds that the painful irony about the Saffioti case is that, just one year after Michael’s death, marijuana was legalized for medical and recreational use in the state of Washington, and under the revised laws, the young man would not have been charged. The fact that Saffioti’s mother brought him to the police station that night thinking she was teaching her son to do the right thing, she adds, only makes the case more heartbreaking.

Snow, who says the lawsuit will be officially filed at the start of December, can only imagine what the ordeal was like for Saffioti. “The thing I can’t get away from is the utter panic he must have felt when he realized that they were not listening to him, that they were not going to take him seriously.”

See also: article on this case from the Winter 2013 edition of the former print magazine.