(CNN) -- The family of a woman who died last year while in police custody at Phoenix, Arizona's, Sky Harbor International Airport filed an $8 million claim Wednesday against the city of Phoenix and its police department, the first step in filing a wrongful death suit.
Carol Gotbaum, shown in an undated family photo, died accidentally, a medical examiner said.
Carol Gotbaum, a 45-year-old mother of three from New York traveling to Tucson, Arizona, to enter an alcohol rehabilitation center, was taken into custody by Phoenix police on September 28 after she missed her connecting flight and flew into a rage.
She was left alone in a holding cell at the airport and subsequently died, accidentally strangling herself while trying to escape her handcuffs.
The claim accuses the Police Department of using "excessive and unreasonable force" on Gotbaum and failing to follow its own procedures in handling people who are obviously disturbed.
"Good people here made lethal, unreasonable mistakes, with catastrophic results for Carol, her three small children and for her husband," the claim says.
Gotbaum was treated "as if she was a dangerous criminal, rather than as a sick, intoxicated and vulnerable person she was," it says. "She had no weapon and never threatened anyone."
City attorneys responded to the claim, saying that police officers acted properly and responsibly in restraining Gotbaum.
"The Gotbaum family has publicly admitted, not only that Carol hid her medical and mental condition, but that the officers responded to Carol exactly the way her husband knew they would respond because they did not have critical information known only to the Gotbaum family," city attorneys representing the Police Department wrote.
Gotbaum, the stepdaughter-in-law of New York public advocate Betsy Gotbaum, became agitated after missing her flight when gate agents were unable to seat her on a subsequent flight. Airport surveillance video shows Gotbaum's arrest, with police officers struggling to handcuff her.
Police reports say she was "uncooperative" and resisted arrest, screaming during their attempts to escort her out of the airport terminal.
She was accused of disorderly conduct and placed in a holding cell at the airport, where she continued to scream for several minutes after police left the room. Shortly after she stopped screaming, an officer found her unconscious, and rescuers were unable to resuscitate her. The Maricopa County medical examiner ruled that her death was an accidental hanging. E-mail to a friend