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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Family of dead inmate files $6.5 million claim against Spokane County

The family of a man who choked to death on his own vomit while being booked into Spokane County Jail in May has filed a $6.5 million wrongful death claim.

Lorenzo Hayes, 37,  is one of four inmates who have died at the jail in recent months, prompting calls for an outside investigation. The wrongful death claim was sent to the Spokane County Department of Risk Management on Wednesday morning, according to the family’s attorney, Nathan Roberts, of Tacoma. The estate is being represented by Hayes’ sister, according to the claim.

The Spokane County medical examiner determined Hayes’ death was a homicide last week, and the Spokane Investigative Regional Response team, headed by the Washington State Patrol, is conducting an investigation to determine if criminal charges will be filed. Roberts said he believed the investigation would be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office by the end of the week.

Spokane County Jail Commander John McGrath declined to comment on the case, citing an ongoing criminal investigation and pending litigation.

The county has 60 days to respond.

The family of Hayes called his death “completely unnecessary.”

“This death could have been easily avoided had jail staff and officers on-scene been properly trained and supervised,” the family wrote in its claim.

Video cameras captured the lead-up to Hayes’ death, according to Jeff Sevigney, spokesman for the WSP.  Hayes was uncooperative when being brought to jail and had to be carried by corrections officers into the booking area from a patrol car, he said. Officers moved him to a restraint chair when he began to show medical distress, Sevigney said, and life-saving efforts were unsuccessful.

The family is requesting between $6.5 million and $9.5 million, according to the claim. An autopsy showed Hayes had methamphetamine in his system at the time of death, and he was arrested on suspicions of violating a no-contact order and illegally possessing a firearm, according to court records.

Should the case go to trial, it would be one of many legal claims against the jail made in recent years. More than a hundred federal lawsuits have been filed against the jail dating to the early 1990s, according to electronic federal case records. Lawsuits have also targeted the jail’s booking and medical staffs.

The county has paid to settle wrongful death claims in the past. In 2007, it paid $180,000 to the family of Christopher L. Rentz, a nonviolent offender who died after being attacked by two violent cellmates. In 2009, commissioners approved a $425,000 settlement with the family of Benites S. Sichiro, a man who died of a lacerated liver in jail custody after sustaining what was referred to as a “donkey kick” by a jailer. Both of those cases initially sought damages totaling more than $5 million.

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