Wrongful Death Lawsuit filed against Scott County, Sheriff

The mother of a former inmate at the Scott County Jail has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Scott County, Sheriff Ronnie Phillips, and several employees of the Scott County Sheriff’s Office claiming their lack of medical care led to the death of her son.

On July 20, 2017, Donna Jean Sexton-Pemberton, the mother of the late Benny Shane Pemberton, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.  In the 58-page complaint, Pemberton alleges that employees of the Scott County Jail and Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc, the third-party provider of healthcare services at the jail, failed to provide adequate medical care to her son, which led to his untimely death.

In the indictment-style lawsuit penned by Knoxville attorney Lance K. Baker of the The Baker Law Firm in Knoxville, Pemberton is seeking up to $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.  The complaint not only claims wrongful death, but alleges that the Sheriff and his staff violated her son’s civil rights and their outrageous conduct led to infliction of emotional distress.

According to the complaint, Pemberton was incarcerated in the Scott County Jail on July 6, 2016 on an outstanding Florida warrant for failure to pay child support.  Two weeks later, the 41-year-old was declared brain dead at University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.  During his incarceration, the suit alleges that the jail failed to provide proper medical care for Pemberton, who was post mortem diagnosed with Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

In the lawsuit, the family claims the infection started in a deep cut on Pemberton’s left foot.  From there, the infection traveled up his left leg, ultimately affecting multiple organs, including his brain.  Pemberton’s family claims that the medical staff at the jail failed to properly diagnose and treat the infection.  Furthermore, they claim Pemberton’s plea for medical assistance fell on deaf ears, as correction’s officers attributed his outward physical duress to withdrawal symptoms from chemical dependency.  Pemberton’s mother admits that her son was a drug addict.

Hours before his death, the lawsuit says Pemberton was found in a comatose state in an isolation cell lying naked in his own excrement and urine.  The family contends that the infection had attacked his brain, leading to organ failure.  Even in that condition, the lawsuit claims that correction officers failed to contact emergency medical personnel, instead directing two jail trusties to clean Pemberton up and place him in a chair.  Eventually, correction officers, when prompted by a local physician contacted by a jail employee, called for assistance.  When employees from the Scott County Ambulance Service arrived, they reportedly performed CPR on Pemberton, and revived him.  He was transported to North Knoxville Medical Center.  There, a physician reportedly diagnosed him with, among other things, an intra-cranial hemorrhage and cardiac arrest.  Due to the severity of his condition, Pemberton was transported from there to University of Tennessee Medical Center, where a neurosurgeon performed an emergency surgery, opening Pemberton’s skull to alleviate cranial pressure.  Shortly thereafter, medical personnel declared him brain dead.

An autopsy performed on July 22, 2016 reportedly found that Pemberton died of septic MRSA, which led to necrosis in multiple organs and tissues.

After being booked in the jail, Pemberton reportedly complained of excruciating pain in his left leg.  Later, his medical condition allegedly deteriorated to the point he could no longer care for himself, relying on other inmates and corrections officers to assist him with simple, everyday tasks like showering.  Near the time of his death, Pemberton was described as bed ridden and unable to care for himself.

The lawsuit claims that corrections officers and employees of Advanced Correctional Healthcare did nothing to help Pemberton.  Instead of providing medical care, the family claims that Pemberton was placed in an isolation cell, referred to in the lawsuit as “the hole”, on at least two occasions to limit his contact with other inmates and jail personnel.  Pemberton’s family asserts that a nurse at the jail refused medical care, allegedly saying “Oh, as long as it doesn’t’ go to your heart, you’ll be fine.”  The lawsuit also claims corrections officers mocked Pemberton, laughing at him.

Days after his death, Pemberton says she met with Chief Detective Randy Lewallen, who stated there would not be an investigation into her son’s death.  “Right there’s what happened to that boy,” Lewallen allegedly told Pemberton as he pointed to the preliminary autopsy report.  Pemberton says Lewallen asserted her son’s death was the result of his drug addiction.  “All of his problems were caused by his needle marks…,” Pemberton claims Lewallen said.

Pemberton’s mother states that jail personnel refused to talk to her about the circumstances leading up to his death.  Shortly after his death, she turned to Facebook, looking for answers from inmates and others that may have had contact with him.  In response, Pemberton claims she was contacted by Chief Deputy Tommy Silcox, who stated he would talk to her about her son’s death, provided she remove the Facebook post.  Pemberton claims she took the Facebook post down, but no one at the jail ever talked to her.

In support of their claim, the family also cites two other recently filed lawsuits alleging inadequate medical care at the jail led to ongoing health problems to former inmates.  In June, Jesse Perry filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office and the County claiming he contracted tuberculosis inside the jail.  In March, former inmate Tammy Brawner filed suit claiming inadequate medical care led to her having seizures that has caused irreversible brain damage.   The latter case has been set for trial on January 8, 2019.

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