Lawsuit regarding Fayette jail inmate's death is transferred to federal court

jkegley@herald-leader.comDecember 8, 2012 

A lawsuit regarding a Fayette County jail inmate's death while in custody was transferred from state to federal court last week.

Family members of inmate Jeffrey McKinney are seeking an unspecified amount of damages from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, the Division of Community Corrections and Corizon Inc., the contractor for medical services at the jail.

The lawsuit also names Mayor Jim Gray, jail Director Rodney Ballard, 14 corrections officers and nine Corizon employees as defendants.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Fayette County Circuit Court on Nov. 13, claims McKinney was assaulted, restrained and pepper-sprayed by jail staff while having a seizure.

The lawsuit was transferred to U.S. District Court in Lexington on Wednesday at the behest of the defendants, according to court documents. The defendants did not need consent from the plaintiffs to transfer the case because the lawsuit alleges a violation of the constitutional rights of McKinney and his family.

McKinney's father, Robert McKinney, and two former wives, Sherri McKinney and Rachel McKinney, claim in the lawsuit that McKinney's wrongful death has deprived them and McKinney's three children of "love, affection, companionship and consortium."

Jeffrey McKinney, 37, was serving a 10-day sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol when he died May 22. The Fayette County coroner said McKinney asphyxiated from choking on his vomit following a seizure and a struggle with jail staff.

Surveillance videos released to Kevin P. Fox, attorney for McKinney's family, depicts the struggle. The ordeal lasted about 45 minutes from McKinney's seizure to the time he was taken, unresponsive, to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

The videos provided more detail in the case, but they do not answer all questions about McKinney's death.

Video from a ceiling-mounted camera shows officers abruptly trying to subdue McKinney. Staff reports said McKinney became combative and spit blood on a nurse, but those actions cannot clearly be seen on the video; the view is blocked by about a dozen officers coming and going from McKinney's cell.

After guards apparently pepper-spray McKinney, handcuff him, put a mesh spit mask on him and place him in a restraint chair, McKinney receives a shot of Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug.

Once McKinney is placed in the restraint chair, a female officer turns on a handheld video camera, which the jail uses to record emergency incidents. McKinney can be seen on that video rocking back and forth in the chair coughing, grunting and saying what sounds like "Help. Please." A few minutes after he receives the shot, he appears to calm down.

Corrections officers then take him into a cell and place him face-down on a cot. At least two guards hold him down while they remove the mask, handcuffs and shackles and try to wash pepper spray out of his eyes.

While he is on the cot, more than 30 minutes after the ordeal began, an officer notices he is not breathing.

The officer can be heard saying, "Jeff, wake up." The guards turn McKinney on his back and attempt CPR, shouting "Come on, Jeff!" periodically as they attempt to revive him.

The CPR lasts for more than 10 minutes before an ambulance arrives and takes McKinney away. McKinney was pronounced dead at the UK hospital.

The videos will likely play a role in a jury trial if the case makes it that far. City officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit, but it appears the plaintiffs intend to fight it.

The city has hired two Lexington attorneys — William Rambicure and Casey Keller — to represent it and most of the jail employees, according to court documents. Another attorney, Barbara Kriz, was hired to represent three jail supervisors, and a fourth attorney, Sean Ragland of Louisville, will represent Corizon Inc. and Corizon employees.

The defendants also filed answers to the lawsuit Thursday and Friday, denying allegations that they contributed to McKinney's death.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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