A Morristown couple have filed a federal lawsuit against Morristown police and Hamblen County Sheriff's Office personnel, alleging officers failed to help their son as he overdosed and eventually died all alone "on a dirty jail floor."
David and Ruth Ann Little filed the action as next of kin to their son, 23-year-old Tyler Little. Little died March 8, 2020, after he was arrested on suspicion of being intoxicated.
The Littles seek $5 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages in U.S. District Court. They're represented by attorneys Lance Baker of Knoxville and Thomas Jessee of Johnson City.
One issue they raise: Hamblen County's poor, crowded jail conditions, a topic WBIR has reported on frequently in recent years.
Named as defendants are the city of Morristown, Officer Devon Gillett, Hamblen County, and Sheriff Esco Jarnigan among others.
WBIR reached out to the police department and Jarnigan for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Tyler Little was stopped the afternoon of March 8, 2020, while driving by Gillett in Morristown. He was unsteady on his feet and appeared intoxicated.
Little told the officer he'd consumed alcohol until about 4 a.m. that morning. He also said he'd taken some of his prescription medication including suboxone, an opioid.
Little appeared intoxicated so Gillett took him to the hospital emergency room for a blood draw as part of the charging process.
While there, the Littles allege, their son began nodding off and appeared to be going into an overdose. Gillett didn't seek help for him, the parents allege, instead taking him to the Hamblen County Jail about 3:45 p.m.
Little's condition continued to worsen at the jail, according to the lawsuit. Corrections personnel could tell he was drowsy and unsteady on his feet.
He lay down on a mat on the floor. An inmate gave him water.
By 4 p.m. Little was lying on his stomach on the mat, internal video showed. He snored so loudly for a while that inmates complained.
People milled about the area but no one checked on him, according to the lawsuit. He didn't move for the next two hours, even when jail personnel "tossed a sandwich" onto his back about 5:30 p.m. as mealtime approached.
"Eventually, Tyler vomited on himself," the complaint states. He stopped breathing.
An inmate "yelled for help" but it was too late, according to the lawsuit. By 6 p.m., four people could be seen on the video standing around his prone body.
He'd never been formally entered into the jail computer system, according to the lawsuit.
"Typically, new inmates go through an intake and assessment process when booked into jail. In Tyler’s case, a corrections officer gave him a mat to lie on and never even entered his name into the intake/booking system," according to the lawsuit.
The Littles allege Sheriff Jarnigan knew his jail was unsafe and unsanitary for human occupation and that jail personnel failed to keep an adequate eye on their son. State inspections have shown the jail is in poor condition, the Littles allege.
Jarnigan has acknowledged in the past that the jail is crowded and that the county should build a new facility. County officials are now in the process of preparing for new jail construction.