Kudos to Kevin Krause and The Dallas Morning News for their continuing coverage of the situation in the Dallas County Jail-
•Jail care lawsuit to be settled
County OKs $950,000 payout to families of 3 mentally ill ex-inmates
12:01 AM CST on Wednesday, February 21, 2007
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning Newskkrause@dallasnews.com
In what one attorney called a landmark case, Dallas County commissioners agreed Tuesday to pay $950,000 to the families of three mentally ill former inmates, one of whom died, to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit over medical care at the jail.
James Monroe Mims was sent to the jail from a state hospital in 2004 for a court hearing, but he didn’t receive his medication for two months. He nearly died after water to his cell was shut off for two weeks.
Clarence Lee Grant Jr., who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had been found incompetent to stand trial, died in his jail cell in 2003 after he did not receive any medicine for five days.
Kennedy Nickerson, who also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was released from the jail in 2003 without medication or notice to his family.
Four days later, he was found lying on the street with a fever, dehydration and “having seizures,” according to the lawsuit.
“It was the right thing to do,” said commissioner John Wiley Price, who attended a mediation session last month and was instrumental in bringing the case to a settlement.
Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield said the former inmates were clearly harmed.
“This is a particularly egregious one,” he said after the meeting.
Mr. Mims’ attorneys were the first to allege that deadly conditions existed in the jail, which is now under a directive from the U.S. Department of Justice to improve conditions.
James Monroe Mims is shown in May 2004 at Parkland Memorial Hospital after being transferred. He came to the county jail from a state hospital for a court hearing and nearly died after water was shut off to his cell for two weeks.
“This will get people’s attention,” said David Finn, an attorney for Mr. Mims’ family. “I think they [commissioners] were wise to cut their losses.”
Mr. Finn said the county saved a potential judgment of $2 million to $3 million by agreeing to settle the case. He said the county also could have saved more than $1 million in legal fees it paid to an outside firm, Figari & Davenport, by settling the case sooner.
Relatives of two of the former inmates watched the unanimous vote with their attorneys on Tuesday and expressed relief afterward.
“I believe victory has been won,” said Lucille Ralston, Mr. Grant’s sister.
She said that when her brother died, “it tore my family up,” but that her brother’s death was not in vain. “Others will not have to endure the pain our family went through,” Ms. Ralston said.
Bernice Washington, Mr. Nickerson’s mother, said she’s still angry about what happened to her son. “They just sent him out on the streets,” she said. “I feel good that it’s over with, and I feel that justice has been served.”
County officials say they are 70 percent done with jail improvements. This month, they undertook emergency measures to reduce the jail’s crowded population while 200 new jail guard positions are being filled.
Mr. Finn said improvements have been made but problems still exist. He said he still receives numerous phone calls and letters from inmates complaining about not receiving their medications and poor medical treatment.
The jail hasn’t passed a state jail inspection in the past three years and must meet Justice Department requirements.
The civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in 2004, argued that what happened to the three former inmates was part of a long-standing pattern of abuse and neglect at the jail.
All three cases in the lawsuit occurred after the county contracted with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to improve jail conditions.
The lawsuit alleged that the county, the Sheriff’s Department and the county hospital district, which hired UTMB, showed “deliberate, callous and conscious indifference” to the inmates’ civil rights by denying them proper medical treatment.
UTMB was replaced as the jail’s medical provider last year by Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Dallas County suffered a couple of legal setbacks in the months and weeks leading up to Tuesday’s settlement.
First, the county lost its fight to keep UTMB as a defendant in the lawsuit, leaving the county to bear the brunt of any potential liability. County officials have long maintained that UTMB is to blame for poor medical care at the jail.
And last month, a federal magistrate judge decided to allow the case to go to trial as scheduled this summer. In a preliminary ruling, U.S. Magistrate Jeff Kaplan said he intended to recommend that Dallas County’s motion to throw out the case “be granted in part and denied in part.”
That meant a federal jury would have been able to hear the bulk of evidence in the case, Mr. Finn said.
Striking a deal
Last month, all parties in the case met for mediation and hashed out an agreement. Mr. Finn said Mr. Price made it clear during mediation that the county would not agree to a sum over $1 million. He said Mr. Price spoke with the family members, was personally involved in negotiations and helped “bridge the gap.”
The settlement amount approved on Tuesday is the largest sum of money the county has ever paid out in a lawsuit related to jail medical care, officials say.
Mr. Finn said that he wanted to take the case to trial but that he honored the wishes of his clients to settle. He said evidence in the case was strong.
It included a statement that former Sheriff Jim Bowles attributed to former Commissioner Jim Jackson, now a state representative.
Mr. Bowles testified that Mr. Jackson “considered his requests to remedy staffing problems an extravagance,” court documents show. He said Mr. Jackson told him he would rather pay to defend a lawsuit than spend any more money on the jail.
Mr. Jackson said Tuesday that Mr. Bowles has no credibility and that he didn’t recall having said anything “close to that.”
Attorneys for the families had also asked the federal court to intervene with an injunction forcing the county to improve jail health care. They say that option remains if the county doesn’t make good on its promise to improve jail conditions.
“This should send a loud and clear message that negligence and mismanagement will not be tolerated and they will pay a steep price if they don’t fix what clearly has been broken for years,” Mr. Finn said. “It’s tragic that it took this concerted effort to bring about change.”