Woman is seeking $7 million in wrongful-death lawsuit

Says son in police custody did not get medical care

April 11, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The mother of a 32-year-old Annapolis man who died in police custody after heroin stopped his diseased heart is suing Howard County and unidentified officers for wrongful death, saying they went "beyond the bounds of ordinary human decency" when they failed to get him medical attention even after his brother said he was sick.

The lawsuit, filed in Howard Circuit Court this week, accuses police officers who arrested Michael Keliher Donahue on suspicion of drunken driving the night of April 5, 2002, of ignoring his "rapidly deteriorating" condition and locking him in a holding cell even though he was unconscious.

Officers discovered the next morning that he had stopped breathing and attempted to resuscitate him. Donahue was pronounced dead at Howard County General Hospital about 10 1/2 hours after the initial arrest.

Donahue's mother, Mary Donahue, is seeking at least $5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages for claims that include wrongful death, a violation of her son's constitutional rights, assault and battery.

Washington lawyer Barry Coburn, who filed the suit on behalf of Mary Donahue, said yesterday that once Michael Donahue was in police custody, it was the officers' legal responsibility to get him the help that he needed.

"It was ... apparent, long before his death, that he was in dire need of medical care," Coburn said.

But Howard County officials said their investigation, which included interviews of witnesses who had been in contact with Michael Donahue and his brother, John, showed that the officers did nothing wrong and that Michael Donahue died of "self-imposed causes."

"Certainly, Mr. Donahue's death, though regrettable, is, in our view, not the result of the conduct of any particular officer or of the Police Department generally," said Senior Assistant Howard County Solicitor Rebecca A. Laws. "We will defend the case vigorously."

A medical examiner's report concluded that the heroin in Michael Donahue's system caused complications with his existing heart condition, resulting in his death.

According to the lawsuit, Michael Donahue had a prescription drug addiction as a result of a fall from a bridge and had gone searching for Vicodin the night of his arrest. Instead, he bought "what was available" and swallowed the capsules. The drug "turned out to be heroin," according to the suit.

He and his brother were changing a flat tire at an Elkridge Exxon station when police, called to the area by a report of a possible drunken driver, found them.

The brothers initially told police that Michael Donahue was the driver, and he failed sobriety tests. John Donahue later told officers that he was driving, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims that John Donahue told officers that his brother needed medical help and that Michael's slurred speech was the result of brain damage.

"John warned the officers that Michael must not be put in a jail cell without medical attention because he could stop breathing," according to the lawsuit, which claims that Michael Donahue was "completely unconscious" by the time police left the scene.

Police have said that they found five tablets of a tranquilizer in the brothers' van and that an officer who is trained to recognize drug symptoms thought Michael Donahue might have been under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. The officer did not recommend a hospital visit, police said.

At the Southern District police station, Michael Donahue was given a breath test that showed he had no alcohol in his system and placed in a cell with five other prisoners, police have said.

The lawsuit claims that his "unconscious condition" made it impossible for Howard officers to process his arrest. Donahue died as a result of the officers' decision not to have him medically evaluated, according to the suit.

Howard police policy does not require officers to take prisoners who are acting erratically but have no alcohol in their system to the hospital. Police officials have said that while Michael Donahue appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, there were no indications that he was in any kind of distress.

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