Pottawattamie County sheriff says jail changes made since ‘tragic’ 2018 case

County paid $4.5 million settlement after inmate required amputation of legs; jail psychiatrist, meanwhile, found not negligent on Wednesday

By: - September 14, 2022 8:37 pm
Pottawattamie County

A jury began deliberations Tuesday evening in a medical negligence case in Council Bluffs seeking upwards of $15 million to $30 million in damages. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — Pottawattamie County Sheriff Andy Brown said Wednesday that reviewing and improving jail medical care has been a top priority following a 2018 incident in which a county inmate had to have both legs amputated.

Brown said the case of inmate Kevin Pittillo was tragic and that since Brown took office in 2020, he has restructured county jail leadership, putting it under a sworn sheriff’s captain, rather than a civilian.

He added that the quality of medical care at the jail has been reviewed and will continue to be examined so “it meets all appropriate standards going forward.”

‘Feel horrible’

“I obviously feel horrible about what happened to him,” Brown said of Pittillo. “I ran for sheriff in 2020 because I want to help the people of Pottawattamie County.”

“I certainly do not want anyone to come out of our jail worse off than when they went in,” he said.

He issued the comments after the Nebraska Examiner revealed that Pottawattamie County had reached an out-of-court settlement with Pittillo and his court-appointed Nebraska public guardian back in November. The county agreed to pay $4.5 million to be dropped from a negligence lawsuit alleging lack of proper medical care.

County officials had not previously revealed the monetary settlement, saying that it could have prejudiced jurors during trials over other parties being sued. 

The jail’s supervising doctor, Dr. Jon Thomas, also agreed to an out-of-court settlement, but the amount awarded was not disclosed in court records. 

Jury deliberated two hours

On Wednesday, a jury of six men and two women found a different party who was sued not liable for the injuries suffered by Pistillo: the jail psychiatrist, Dr. Ivan Delgado.

The jury deliberated about two hours Wednesday. The not-liable verdict meant jurors didn’t have to go through the technical process of determining potential damages due or the percentage of liability.

Delgado’s legal team, led by the Omaha firm of Lamson, Dugan & Murray, said it appeared that the jury agreed that the incident “was a physical medicine issue and not a psychiatric issue” and that Dr. Delgado had met the reasonable standard of care for psychiatrists.

Delirious, almost naked

Pittillo, now 66, was brought to the Pottawattamie Jail in July 2018 on suspicion of disturbing the peace. He was reported to be delirious and paranoid, was nearly naked and was babbling about being a former Russian KBG agent or a current member of the U.S. military.

He was examined by medical staff as well as Dr. Delgado, who prescribed a psychotropic drug, Seroquel, commonly given to treat schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, to quell his strange behavior.

While in jail, Pittillo regularly refused to take the drug and refused to take showers. He laid stinking and naked on the floor of his cell and was mostly nonverbal. Guards had to pick him up and clean him up and expressed that Pittillo needed to go to a hospital or mental facility.

They found a painful rash in his pelvic area, which was treated with medicated lotion.

One leg appeared dead

Nine days after entering the jail, guards, sensing his physical deterioration, called for an ambulance.

Eventually, Pittillo was transferred to CHI Health’s Bergan Mercy Hospital in Omaha, where he was diagnosed with “profound ischemia,” a clotting of blood vessels that had blocked the flow of blood to his legs. A surgeon testified that one leg appeared dead.

Both his legs had to be amputated. He now lives in an Omaha independent living facility that has 24-hour aid available to help him get in and out of bed. He spends most of the day watching television, Chaffee said.

Pittillo’s attorneys had argued that his legs could have been spared, or his amputations could have been less extensive, had Delgado recognized his physical and mental deterioration earlier and ordered him sent to a hospital.

But Delgado’s lawyers said it was the jail nurses’ job to ensure that Pittillo was taking his medication and that they had failed to alert the psychiatrist that he wasn’t doing so until a week had passed.

Like a sudden heart attack

Pittillo’s physical ailments, Delgado’s attorneys also insisted, came on suddenly and were caused by lifelong poor health and smoking. They maintained that the clotting occurred like a sudden, surprise heart attack.

While Delgado’s attorneys accused Pittillo’s lawyers of seeking “Cadillac” care for their client, the plaintiff’s attorneys said it was about human dignity and getting his diapers changed without his having to wait hours in his wheelchair.

Michelle Chaffee of the Nebraska Office of Public Guardian said she filed the lawsuit — a first for her 8-year-old office — after Pittillo became a state ward and she learned of what had happened.

Public guardians are appointed to manage the affairs of people with disabilities or elderly individuals who cannot manage their affairs on their ow, and have no family or friends able to do so.

The Nebraska office, established in 2014 through the Nebraska Supreme Court, manages about 300 state wards. The office bills itself as “protecting Nebraska’s most vulnerable” and often intervenes in instances of financial exploitation or medical mistreatment.

Chaffee said Pittillo was disappointed by the jury’s verdic, and was most disappointed that jurors might have felt that the amputation was somehow his fault.

Pittillo had testified earlier during his six-day trial, but her wasn’t present for closing arguments Tuesday, Chaffee said, because it’s painful for him to be in his wheelchair too long.

Chaffee said she was disappointed, but not surprised, given that the system of treating those with mental illnesses is “broken.”

“This whole situation is a horrible example of how individuals with mental illness are blamed, ignored and treated differently compared to individuals with physical illnesses,” she said.

“If a person was found lying on the sidewalk, with beginning signs of a potential heart attack, I do not think they would be taken to jail for loitering,” Chaffee added. “And, most assuredly, if the individual was in jail and physical symptoms progressed to heart failure, they immediately would be sent to a hospital.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.