Family of inmate who died of ‘excessive water consumption’ at Santa Cruz County Jail sues sheriff, others

The family of a 21-year-old man who died at the Santa Cruz County Jail last year has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart and others, alleging “longstanding and systemic deficiencies” in the jail’s treatment of inmates.

The 47-page complaint, filed in federal court in San Jose last month, alleges, among other things, that officials failed to supervise Tamario Smith, didn’t provide adequate and necessary medical care and neglected to make sure his cell had working emergency buttons to call for help.

Smith, who suffered from schizophrenia and a kidney disorder, was found lying in a large pool of watery, odorless fluid on his cell room floor unresponsive on May 10, 2020. He had vomit around his face and his shirt and pants were covered in clear liquid.

A forensic pathologist for the Santa Cruz Sheriff-Coroner ruled that he died of “sudden cardiac arrest caused by an electrolyte imbalance due to excessive consumption of water,” according to the complaint.

“Santa Cruz County officials, including defendant Sheriff Hart, were aware of numerous systemic problems resulting in preventable deaths in the jails, but took no action to prevent further constitutional violations,” the complaint also states.

The complaint lists a number of other defendants, including Paul Ramos, chief deputy of corrections; Mimi Hall, the county’s director of public health; Erik Reira, the county’s director of behavioral health; and Wellpath, a county vendor that provides medical services to inmates.

Defendants in the case have not yet filed a response. A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said in an email to Lookout on Wednesday that the agency is aware of the complaint and cannot comment on pending litigation. A county spokesman deferred to the sheriff’s office for comment.

A spokeswoman for Wellpath said in an email that the company does not comment on active litigation.

Elizabeth Caballero, one of two attorneys for Smith’s family, said nobody’s loved one should suffer the way Smith did and his family has. “We feel that Tamario Smith was wronged by the county,” she said. “We strongly believe that the county jail has significant issues.”

Santa Cruz County Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Smith had been charged with domestic battery and violating a protective order after his on again/off again boyfriend alleged that in November 2019 they had gotten into an argument that ended with Smith punching him on the bicep, leaving a bruise, the lawsuit states. He was initially granted supervised release while awaiting trial, but the Santa Cruz Superior Court remanded Smith to jail after he failed to appear for court on two occasions.

Smith remained in jail over the next few months, from early February to his death in May, and had two medical calls in April, according to the lawsuit.

He first sought medical attention for a headache on April 21 where he was given ibuprofen, Gatorade and told to drink at least 5 cups of water a day.

The lawsuit alleges that medical personnel treated Smith for dehydration “when in fact he was hydrated and recommended that he consume more water” despite being diagnosed with schizophrenia and a syndrome called Rhabdomyolysis that can lead to kidney failure and death.

On April 28, during the morning medication rounds, Wellpath staff observed that Smith had “motor deficit of his upper right extremity,” according to the complaint. “These are all common symptoms of over-hydration,” attorneys for Smith’s family wrote. “No action was taken other than to encourage Tamario to drink even more fluids.”

The complaint notes that the Sheriff-Coroner pathologist never tested the contents of Smith’s stomach “nor did they test the fluid they found in the toilet.”

Video from the day of his death shows Smith filling up a bottle with pink cleaning fluid from the jail unit’s mop bucket. And an unidentified witness said that Smith “had made statements several days before his death that he was considering drinking cleaning fluid to ‘clean out his stomach,’” according to the complaint.

The unidentified inmate told Smith not to drink cleaning fluid and other unidentified witnesses saw Smith drinking “a lot of coffee” and observed that he “was shaky on the day of his death,” the suit states.

The forensic pathologist who reviewed video from the day of Smith’s death noted that he appeared to be responding to “internal stimuli,” the lawyers wrote. Smith had previously acknowledged to a doctor who was evaluating him that he was hearing voices telling him what to do.

The lawsuit also alleges that most of the emergency buttons in jail cells in the M-Unit, including the cell that housed Smith, did not work at the time of his death.

“The jail also has a longstanding custom and practice of failing to provide functioning in-cell emergency buttons despite the preexistence of such buttons in each cell,” the attorneys wrote. “Failure to provide a functioning emergency button was a moving force behind Mr. Smith’s death where he became ill and could not obtain medical help from jail staff.”

The complaint also alleges that jail staff failed to check on Smith’s cell for his safety and protection. Safety checks, the lawyers claim, are not conducted in a “manner where the corrections officers are required to enter the cell.”

The suit alleges that Hart and others have failed to properly supervise, train and discipline employees, and that they “historically and systematically engaged in a pattern of failure to properly investigate misconduct of deputies and medical staff.” It also details a number of previous jail deaths.

The damages sought will be “very significant,” considering how young Smith was, said Jonathan Gettleman, the family’s other attorney.

“Tamario was 21 years old,” he said. “He had his entire life ahead of him. And he had his entire life taken away.”

A case management conference is scheduled for April 22.