LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County should pay $35 million to a man who suffered a psychotic breakdown and self-mutilated himself in the Men’s Central Jail in 2014 because deputies were not properly trained to respond to his calls for help, an attorney told a jury Tuesday.
“This tragedy was preventable,” lawyer Michael Libman said during final arguments on behalf of 33-year-old Michael Shabsis, whose lawsuit is being heard in Los Angeles Superior Court. “All they had to do was answer his call for help immediately.”
But Rickey Ivey, an attorney for the county, said jail deputies are trained to enforce security, not to make medical decisions.
“This is not Cedars-Sinai hospital, this is a county jail,” Ivey said.
Libman disagreed and said one of the deputies on watch when Shabsis used his fingers to gouge out his eyes — leaving him permanently blinded — admitted he was trained only to look for visible signs of distress. As a result, when Shabsis screamed for help when he suffered a broken hip in jail prior to the Jan. 1, 2014, mid-afternoon self-mutilation, he was left lying nude on his cell floor without the immediate aid he needed, Libman said.
According to Libman, deputies knew Shabsis was mentally ill and delusional when he was jailed on elder abuse allegations involving his grandfather in December 2013. When he broke his hip, Shabsis reached his breaking point, Libman told jurors.
“The pain was too much for him, given his mental state,” Libman said.
But Ivey said Shabsis had a history of psychological problems that intensified when he stopped using his medications. He said the plaintiff told deputies various reasons other than hip pain for gouging out his eyes, including his inability to deal with bright lights in jail and his fear of going to hell.
Ivey said Shabsis’ claims about his hip pain causing his violent behavior may have something to do with his case now being before a jury, saying “$35 million will make you think of a lot of things.”
Shabsis was present in court to hear his lawyer’s summation, along with his wife, his 3-year-old daughter and his mother. He testified last month that one of his biggest regrets is knowing he’ll never be able to have even a glimpse of his spouse or offspring.
“I can’t see them, I can’t see my daughter smile, I can’t see my wife smile,” Shabsis said.
Shabsis said he only has a “vague memory” of his self-mutilation, but that he clearly recalls the aftermath when he awoke in a hospital and realized he could no longer see.
Shabsis said he broke his hip after falling from a bunk bed in his cell.
Shabsis said he was born in Ukraine and that his family brought him to the United States when he was 4 years old. He said he lived in West Hollywood and dreamed of being an artist and later a Navy SEAL. Libman showed jurors examples of his client’s artwork during his final argument.
Prior to trial, Shabsis settled his claims against Pfizer Inc. and Dr. Philip Cogen, who worked at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. Pfizer makes Chantix, which was prescribed to Shabsis by Cogen.
The settlement terms with Pfizer and Cogen were not divulged.
Judge Daniel Murphy previously dismissed former Sheriff Lee Baca as a defendant, saying his presence in the case was “redundant” because Shabsis also is suing Los Angeles County. The judge also dismissed Shabsis’ claims against the University of California Board of Regents.