June 13, 2002
LAWSUITS BY INMATES
By: George Coppolo, Chief Attorney
You asked about the status of two lawsuits involving the death of prisoners who were sent to Virginia, whether there are other similar lawsuits pending, and how the Virginia cases compare with suits involving prisoners in Connecticut.
Two legal actions were filed in connection with the deaths of Connecticut inmates who were transferred to Virginia by the Department of Correction (DOC). One was a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court involving the death of David Tracey. The second was a claim filed with the Connecticut claims commissioner involving the death of Larry Frazier. Both cases wound up before federal Magistrate Judge Garfinkel.
Each case was resolved by settlement before it was litigated. The state, acting through the attorney general, agreed to settle the Tracey case for $ 750,000 and the Frazier case for $ 1,100,000. Thus, each of these cases has been fully resolved.
According to Assistant Attorney General Richard Couture, who represented the state in each of these cases, there are no other similar cases pending involving prisoners who were transferred to Virginia. He also advised us that in light of the facts of these cases, the settlements are in line with similar cases involving inmates who died in Connecticut prisons. For example, the state recently settled a lawsuit involving the death of an inmate named Timothy Perry at the Hartford Correctional Center for $ 2. 9 million.
In all three cases, Couture indicated the state decided to settle based on the nature of the evidence and the possibility that the state could be compelled to pay far more if the cases we litigated and decided by a jury. He pointed out that in each case, the plaintiff relied on a federal civil rights statute that allows a jury to award compensatory damages including pain and suffering, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees. Couture indicated that similar cases filed in other states in reliance on this statute have resulted in very large verdicts. For example, he cited a recent Michigan case involving a prisoner who died while in custody that resulted in a jury verdict of around $ 13 million dollars (Swans v. the City of Lansing, 65 F. Supp. 2d, 625 (1998)). The verdict included $ 9. 8 million for actual damages, $ 3,125 million for punitive damages, and nearly $ 344,000 for attorney's fees.
The administrator for the estate of David Tracey filed a lawsuit in federal district court under 42 USC § 1983. He sued the DOC, the DOC commissioner, the University of Connecticut Health Center, and various state officials and employees. The suit was based on the failure to care properly for an inmate with mental illness and who was at risk for suicide. We have enclosed a copy of the complaint that provides specific allegations.
The complaint alleges Tracey was a 19 year old who was border- line retarded with a long history of serious mental illness and suicide gestures and attempts who should not have been transferred to a facility in Virginia that was unwilling or not equipped to properly care for, treat, and supervise him. He was in prison for drug possession and had four months left on his sentence when he committed suicide at the Wallens-Ridge Correctional facility in Virginia.
It was also alleged that the medical, psychiatric, and custodial supervision in Virginia was inadequate and contributed to, resulted in, and allowed his death.
The administrator for the estate of Larry Frazier filed a claim with the claims commissioner seeking permission to sue the state in connection with Frazier's death. We have enclosed a copy of the claim. The attorney representing Tracey also represented Frazier and was in the process of preparing a federal civil rights lawsuit based on the same statute used in the Tracey case. When Assistant Attorney General Couture, who was representing the state in the Tracey case, became aware of the Frazier case, he asked federal Magistrate Judge Garfinkel to oversee settlement negotiations and he agreed. Thus both Tracey and Frazier wound up in front of the same federal judge magistrate.
Frazier was in prison for sexual assault. He had significant physical and psychological problems. He was diagnosed with a diabetes. He went into shock when he was being bused to Virginia and had filed a lawsuit because he was not given his required medications. He was also diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and needed strong psychotropic medication.
It appeared that Frazier was not given medication in Virginia for either his diabetes or his psychological problems. On the day he died he had another diabetic shock. He had not been feeling well that day and had apparently sought medical treatment.
When he went into shock he apparently was unable to respond to the guard's commands. Additional officers responded with stun guns, and he was stunned several times. At one point he became motionless, but nonetheless the guards put him in restraints and carried him to the cell. Subsequently a mental health worker examined him and informed the guards that Frazier was not breathing. It appeared that Frazier was still going through diabetic shock when the guards had applied the stun gun several times.
Carolyn Querijero, a deputy attorney general, testified before the legislature about the Tracey case. We have enclosed a copy of her testimony. Following is a brief summary.
This case involved the death of a 21 year old while he was in DOC custody awaiting trail. He had a history of mental illness, had been in the care of foster families, and been in halfway houses throughout his life. After he turned 18, he was in and out of mental hospitals. In January 1999, he was admitted to the Cedarcrest Hospital with a diagonals of schizophrenia.
In March of 1999, he was arrested for assaulting a staff member at Cedarcrest and sent to Hartford Correctional Center to await his trial. About two weeks later, he had an incident, involving uncontrollable behavior. A physician ordered that he be put in four point restraints and that he be administered certain psychotropic medication to calm him down.
The complaint alleged that when Perry was placed in restraints, procedures were not followed and he was held down. He was moved from one cell to another, a towel was held over his face, and ultimately he was restrained. A nurse gave him two injections. When he was checked an hour and a half later, it was noticed that his feet were blue and that he had died.
The autopsy report was inconclusive as to the cause of death. It listed several possible causes including sudden heart attack and asphyxia.
The administrator of Perry's estate filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit named as defendants the DOC, the Hartford Correctional Center, and a number of staff, primarily guards. It also named the nurse and doctor at the Hartford Correctional Center, the Cedarcrest Hospital, and a number of the staff at Cedarcrest.
The lawsuit alleged deliberate indifference to Perry's needs by both the treating staff at Cedarcrest in their treatment and in their decision to have him arrested and sent to prison. It also alleged deliberate indifference, and excessive force by the staff people at the prison who engaged in the restraint that culminated in his death.