The family of a Brooklyn woman who seems to have died in police custody in Staten Island has filed court papers indicating they plan to sue the city, as well as possibly the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and two borough hospitals who attended to her in her final hours.
The day of her death, the NYPD told reporters that officers found Nicole Garbellotto, 34, unconscious in a car at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge toll plaza on the evening of December 7th. From there, officials said that FDNY emergency medical personnel administered the anti-opiate-overdose drug naloxone and transported her to Staten Island University Hospital North, and that after she was treated there, officers arrested her for driving while impaired. They found her unconscious, or possibly dead in her cell the following day, according to initial accounts.
"I wouldn’t wish this on any parent," Garbellotto’s mother Donna Rosa told the Daily News. "I just want to know what happened to my daughter. I have been unable to sleep and I need some justice."
The court filings, made Thursday in Manhattan Supreme Court, demand that the NYPD, the Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the University Hospital, and Richmond University Medical Center, which issued the death certificate, turn over names of employees who were working at the time, and preserve all records related to the incident.
Contemporaneous police accounts in the news differed from publication to publication. Some police officials omitted mention of naloxone treatment, and officials claimed times between 4:30 and 5 a.m. as, variously, the point that Garbellotto was first taken into custody; the time that she was released from the hospital; or the time that she was found unconscious, or dead, in her cell. Doctors at Richmond University Medical Center recorded Garbellotto's time of death as 2:03 p.m. on December 8th, according to the family's lawyer, David Rankin.
"The reporting is all over the place," Rankin said of the initial articles. "Presumably that’s because [the NYPD's] story was all over the place."
Rankin said that Garbellotto was in a long-term relationship and hoped to get married. She had worked in retail, he said, but was unemployed at the time of her death. Her family was aware that she struggled with substance abuse, Rankin said, but he stressed that it's still not clear how she died, or what happened in the as many as 20 hours between her initial contact with law enforcement officers and her death. Police told the Daily News before the filings that officers found no drugs on her, and used no force against her.
The two court filings are the likely first step towards a lawsuit, and are meant to help flesh out who to subpoena and name in such a suit, as well as to keep the police and hospitals from destroying potential evidence.
Rankin explained the heart of the issues by saying, "Once the police take somebody into custody, they’re responsible for them. If a hospital releases somebody that has a medical condition of any sort that is potentially fatal, that’s a problem for the hospital. The police have a responsibility, once they put somebody in a cage, to monitor them and make sure that they’re safe."
He added, "You should be able to be arrested in New York City safely. She was charged with a crime—she was going to have to answer for those crimes—but it shouldn’t have been a death sentence. It was a misdemeanor."
In 2013, two prisoners died in custody at the 120th Precinct station house within six weeks of each other. One, Irving Mizell, was beaten and dragged down several flights of stairs during his arrest, according to a federal lawsuit brought by his family. The other, Charles Kohm, hung himself with a belt left by an earlier prisoner after being arrested for trespassing, according to the Staten Island Advance.
Staten Island has been ravaged by an epidemic of opioid abuse in recent years.
An FDNY spokesman confirmed that responders arrived at the bridge at 5:33 p.m. on December 7th after a call about an unconscious person, and transported the patient to Staten Island University Hospital in serious condition, but did not have information regarding the possible use of naloxone. The Law Department and MTA declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.