A federal jury handed down a $33 million judgment against Ottawa County this week in the case of a man who begged for medical attention in jail for more than 20 hours before his death.
Terral Ellis, 26, died after spending 12 days at the Ottawa County Jail in October 2015. He was being held there after turning himself in on an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on a DUI charge.
Ellis told jail staff that he thought he was dying and that his legs were going numb and turning black. But jail staff accused him of faking his illness, laughed and threatened to shackle him to the floor. An autopsy later found Ellis died of sepsis and pneumonia.
Daniel Smolen, an attorney for the Ellis family, said he believes the verdict reflects the jury’s reaction to Ellis’ pain and suffering and jailers’ “total disregard, at every level, for providing him any kind of basic medical care.”
“This was really a case where this kid got tortured to death,” Smolen said.
Jailers’ comments and Ellis’ cries for help became public after jail surveillance video with audio was unearthed after his family filed a lawsuit.
“I am sick and fucking tired of dealing with your ass,” a jail nurse told Ellis before slamming the cell door and walking away, “There ain’t nothing wrong with you.”
After Ellis’ death, jail staff took steps to make his death look like a suicide, according to court testimony. The nurse told paramedics that he may have taken his own life. Ellis was found with a bedsheet loosely tied around his neck but there were no marks on his neck, the autopsy found.
At the trial, jail staff admitted in their testimony that they knew Ellis was in pain but did nothing even as he screamed for help. The jail had a written policy to doubt inmates who sought medical attention that said “never let your guard down, never turn your back on them, don’t ever let them gain your trust.”
Two detention officers and a nurse who were named as defendants in the case weren’t disciplined at the time of Ellis’ death and have never faced criminal charges. They have all since left their jobs at the jail.
Ottawa County Sheriff David Dean, who took office in 2021 and didn’t work for the agency at the time, told The Frontier after the trial that the staff members weren’t disciplined because no one knew the surveillance video had audio until two years after Ellis’ death.
“I’m sorry for the family’s loss,” Dean said.
Ottawa County has since hired a private contractor, Turn Key Health Clinics LLC, to provide medical care at the jail, he said.
Integris Miami EMS was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly failing to transport Ellis to a hospital, but settled for an undisclosed amount before the case went to trial.
In a statement released after the trial, Ellis’ family called for reform:
“The Ellis family is pleased with, and humbled by the jury’s verdict. The family waited years for their day in court. Terral Ellis was essentially tortured to death while housed in the Ottawa County Jail. With a modicum of humane treatment, his suffering and death were eminently preventable. The family is hopeful that the trial and $33 million verdict will spark long overdue reforms of the broken healthcare delivery systems in our county jails. Funds recovered by the Estate will be used to care for Terral’s son, who was just four years old when Terral tragically died.”