County to pay $600K to settle death of mentally ill man at jail

EVERETT — Snohomish County has agreed to pay $600,000 to the family of a mentally ill man who died in 2012 in the jail after being shocked twice with an electric stun gun.

The settlement was approved by the County Council earlier this week and brings an end to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Bill Williams’ wife and children.

Williams died of a heart attack some 17 minutes after an Everett police officer brought him to the jail. Williams, 59, had been arrested for shoplifting a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and six-pack of beer, totaling about $15.

Corrections officers alleged that Williams lunged at one of the deputies and was combative. A video showed some of the interaction between Williams and the officers. He eventually was handcuffed and left on his belly in a cell. About a minute later, a sergeant checked on him and noticed that he had stopped breathing. Efforts to revive him by a jail nurse and later by paramedics were unsuccessful.

The county medical examiner concluded that a struggle with corrections officers led Williams to suffer from excited delirium, a form of mania that follows severe physical agitation. His Sept. 14, 2012, death was ruled a homicide.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe declined to file criminal charges against the five corrections officers who struggled to restrain Williams. Roe concluded that the officers’ actions were within the boundaries of the law.

The deceased man’s family filed a lawsuit in 2015 in King County. The case was later moved to U.S. District Court in Seattle. His family was represented by two Everett law firms, Brewe Layman and Cogdill Nichols Rein Wartelle Andrews. Both firms have represented other families whose loved ones have died in the county jail.

The lawsuit alleged that Williams was not properly screened to determine if he was medically fit to be booked. The lawsuit also accused the corrections officers of creating an unnecessary confrontation with Williams and then using excessive force while he was in a medical crisis. The lawsuit accused jail staff of failing to provide adequate medical care.

The county in April filed a motion to toss out the lawsuit. Civil deputy prosecutors, who work under Roe, argued that the officers used appropriate force given their safety concerns. They alleged that Williams had assaulted an officer and continued to struggle with corrections deputies.

The prosecutors also argued that “based on the totality of the circumstances, the officers were not deliberately indifferent in their response to Mr. Williams’ apparent medical needs,” according to court papers.

Williams reportedly first resisted Everett police officers. He was cooperative by the time he was transported to the jail. A sergeant, however, noted that he “didn’t look like he was in good health.”

Williams was directed to a changing room at the jail and handed pants and a shirt. He rushed out of the room and headed toward a corrections officer with his arms outstretched. The deputy grappled with Williams and took him to the ground. Other deputies joined in trying to control Williams.

A corrections sergeant used a stun gun to subdue him. Williams appeared to have trouble breathing and the sergeant called for a nurse, but did not call 911. Williams seemed to recover before he was evaluated by medical staff.

Corrections officers hauled him to his feet but he resisted being put into a cell. The sergeant again shocked him with a Taser. Finally, at least four corrections officers wrestled him into a cell. He was left on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back.

“While the County claims that he was ‘combative,’ none of the deputies involved state that he ever headbutted anyone, kicked anyone, spat at anyone, or threatened anyone. A reasonable view of the video shows that he was likely simply confused and dazed,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in response to the motion to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit alleged that staff was improperly trained to recognize and respond to medical and mental health emergencies. The lawsuit also accused the county of failing to train staff about the proper use of force on a person exhibiting signs of mental illness.

Williams was under the care of Compass Health at the time of his death. He had told booking staff he was on anti-psychotic medication. He had cards in his wallet showing that he had appointments with Compass on Sept. 11, 12 and 28.

Williams had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar and psychotic disorders. A day before he died, mental health care workers had issued a crisis alert advising hospital staff that if they came in contact with Williams, he was having a “psychiatric episode.” There was no protocol to give police the same warning.

As part of the settlement, the county didn’t admit any wrongdoing.

John Lovick was sheriff and oversaw the jail at the time of Williams’ death.

In 2013, the federal Department of Justice issued a review of the jail’s operations and suggested reforms following a series of deaths there. Thirteen inmates died at the jail between 2010 and 2014. Some were suicides; however, most involved inmates with serious health problems, often linked to alcohol and drug abuse.

The rate of deaths was consistent with those seen at similar-sized jails around the country, according to federal data.

Sheriff Ty Trenary inherited the jail when he took office in mid-2013. He instituted a number of changes at the county lock-up, including restricting how many people are kept there. He hired additional medical staff and implemented more stringent medical screening before an inmate can be booked.

Trenary also has led a community effort to look at alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

At least one other lawsuit is pending in federal court over the death of a jail inmate. The county and its insurance carrier in recent years have settled at least two other wrongful death lawsuits involving the jail. That included a $2.4 million settlement with the family of a 22-year-old man who died a few months before Williams.

Reporter Noah Haglund contributed to this story.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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