In 2012, Michael Saffioti died from a severe reaction to dairy after spending a single night in Snohomish County Prison on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.
The popular 22-year-old – who had asthma and a severe dairy allergy – was expected to go before a judge and be released that morning, but he never made it past breakfast: despite assurances that the oatmeal he was given was safe for him, after eating a few bites he began having difficulty breathing.
As his reaction worsened, the young man pleaded for guards to call 911 and fellow inmates pressed their emergency buttons and yelled for help, but medical attendants only arrived more than 30 minutes later, after Saffioti collapsed in his cell. By then it was too late. “There was a point where he knew he wasn’t going to get help in time,” his mother Rose, a registered nurse, told Allergic Living after her son’s death. “That’s the worst part for me.”
No criminal charges were filed in the case, but in 2013, Rose Saffioti launched a $10 million lawsuit against the county and the prison’s food provider, arguing that officials failed to provide her son with a medically approved diet, and that there was “an absolute and utter failure” to provide medical care. She had made sure that corrections staff were aware of his allergies and asthma, and provided his asthma medication, epinephrine auto-injector and medical records.
This summer, the Saffioti family settled their claim for $2.4 million. Still, says lawyer Cheryl Snow, it is cold comfort for a family struck hard by the tragedy.
“They are relieved to have it done, but it’s hard to let it end because you feel like you’re no longer fighting on behalf of your child any more. And in the end, settling for any sum of money can’t even get close to representing what you’re going through,” says Snow. “I’m glad we prevailed. But there was, for everyone, a lot of sadness in the case.”
The National Institute of Corrections launched a review of Snohomish County’s jails after a string of in-custody deaths, several of which involved concerns over medical care. Shari Ireton, spokesperson for the Snohomish County sheriff’s office, says the county has implemented most of the institute’s recommendations, which include the hiring of a doctor and a Health Services director, and the screening of all inmates by a health care professional at the time of booking. The prison is also no longer booking people for non-violent misdemeanors.
She emphasizes that these changes, however, are not directly related to the Saffioti case. When asked if anything was learned from the Saffioti’s death, or if any employees had been disciplined as a result, Ireton said she could not comment.
However, Sheriff Ty Trenary did acknowledge to The Seattle Times that Saffioti’s was “a tragedy” and that the county had settled the lawsuit “to own up for our mistakes and to cover litigation costs.”
Snow hopes that Snohomish County will catch up with other jurisdictions in terms of medical practices so that nobody has to go through anything like what Michael Saffioti experienced.
“He was so funny and sweet, and the more we talked with his peers and people who knew him, the more we saw he was just beloved. And managing his own allergy gave him a kindness and compassion towards others,” says Snow, who says Saffioti also knew exactly what to do in the event of a serious reaction. “Doctors commented on how skilled he was at managing his own allergies. If he had just been allowed to treat himself, he would still be alive today.”