Scottsdale lawyer

Tony Piccuta.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s office has agreed to pay $11.75 million to a former inmate at the county jail for deliberately failing to protect him and ignoring his medical needs after he was assaulted by another inmate so badly he did not wake from a coma for two more than months.

The settlement is believed to be the largest ever paid by Maricopa County to a single individual arising from a jail-related injury, said Tony Piccuta, a Scottsdale attorney who represented the victim and his mother.

The victim, Brian Ortiz, was 18 at the time of the beating on May 26, 2020, at the 4th Avenue Maricopa County Jail.

The attack left Ortiz “severely, cognitively disabled, for lack of a better word, mentally retarded,” Piccuta said.

Ortiz was in jail on a probation violation from an original charge of assaulting a police officer. He was being held in the highest level of security possible at the jail, where strict rules govern inmate interaction. However, jail employees had allowed a “modified closed custody” situation that allowed three inmates to interact at the time of the incident.

An investigation turned up no paperwork permitting the “modified closed custody” to occur.

“It became pretty clear to us it was some kind of ad hoc, shoot-from-the-hip policy,” Piccuta said.

Ortiz was beaten by inmate Xavier Fregoso.

The complaint alleged “Ortiz was punched, kicked and stomped by another inmate almost 50 times” and “was beaten with such violent force that he fell into a coma and did not regain consciousness for more than two months.”

“During the assault and in the critical time period following,” it said, “no one came to his aid…[and] Ortiz was not so much as placed in an ambulance until approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes after he was lying unconscious on the ground, seizing and bleeding from his head.”

The incident was allowed to happen because of a dereliction of duty, Piccuta said, adding, “There is no real explanation, somebody wasn’t watching over surveillance.”

Detention officers doing security walks in the cell block did not notice Ortiz bleeding from the head and having seizures, according to the lawsuit.

His mother was not notified of the attack until June 1. Hospital staff asked for permission to take Ortiz off life-support but she refused.

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said in a written statement, “I offer my heartfelt apology to the Ortiz family as we conclude the litigation regarding the violent attack against Mr. Ortiz that occurred while in our custody in 2020.

It is my expectation and our commitment that everyone in our care and custody is entitled to a safe and healthy environment.

“MCSO works hard to ensure the safety of the inmates, officers and all working in the jail facilities. Unfortunately, jails are inherently dangerous given many of those incarcerated are violent criminals, like the inmate who attacked Mr. Ortiz. Although MCSO meets or exceeds national best practices, the subsequent delay in our recognition of the event and engagement to provide aide occurred due to human and operational shortcomings. This is not an excuse, yet it is a reality in the complex environment that exists within the jail setting.

Penzone said his officers did nothing wrong.

“The officers involved did not violate any MCSO policy and it would be unfair to blame our officers as the complexities of their job, which are beyond that which most outside of law enforcement experience, do not allow for human error.

“As the Sheriff, I will not overlook nor excuse our organizational limitations. We have and will continue to seek ways to more quickly identify violence within the jail walls and to mitigate the threat to anyone under our supervision. We continue to seek artificial intelligence technology, expanded staffing opportunities and operational measures to improve our every action on behalf of the community we serve, and that includes the inmate population.

“The cost to our taxpayers due to this incident is considerable and I am disappointed. The cost to Mr. Ortiz’s health and future cannot be measured.”

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