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Washington DOC Suffers Yet Another Multi-Million Dollar Negligent Supervision Settlement

On May 16, 2001, the State of Washington and King County agreed to pay $5.5 million to the family of a man stabbed to death by a mentally ill man who was mistakenly released from the King County (Washington) jail.

On August 24, 1997, 64 year old Ross Stevenson, a retired Seattle Fire Department captain, had just left a Seattle Mariners baseball game when a man walked up to him and fatally stabbed him in the heart with a butcher's knife. Mr. Stevenson did not know his assailant, later identified as Dan Van Ho, a violent schizophrenic released from the King County jail just 11 days earlier.

Following the fatal stabbing, Stevenson's family sued, charging negligence and claiming Ho "was in a violent state and should not have been released," plaintiff's attorney Rebecca J. Roe said.

Mr. Ho's release from the jail occurred because of a string of mistakes by state and county personnel, said Ms. Roe. A year before the killing, Ho violated a no contact order against his sister and was sent to Western State Hospital, where he stabbed a staff member with a nail file. Ho was convicted of assault but a probation officer later lost his file. Over the next year, Ho was in and out of jail but his failure to pay restitution on his assault conviction was never detected due to the lost file.

On July 7, 1997, Ho was arrested for trying to steal a bicycle and booked into the King County jail. The jail knew Ho well and knew he didn't take his medication. While at the jail, Ho threw water and feces at staff and tore up his mattress. Under the law, the jail could have called a mental health professional to involuntarily commit Ho since he was becoming a threat to himself and others. But the jail psychiatric staff never called a mental health professional, and only one nurse sought to collect anecdotal evidence about Ho for a possible referral.

On August 4, Ho was sent to Western State Hospital to determine his competency on the bicycle theft charges. While there, Ho kicked two assistants in the face and spent two days in restraints.

The doctors determined he was angry, hostile and paranoid and should be committed against his will. But Ho was returned to the jail and his violent behavior continued.

Ho was released on August 13, only a day after Seattle Municipal Judge Elsa Durham dismissed the bicycle theft charges despite having the letter from Western State recommending that Ho be treated against his will.

A guard later told attorneys that Ho's behavior had become so assaultive that he was escorted out the front door of the jail and onto the sidewalk by five guards.

The $5.5 million wrongful death settlement is the largest in King County history and is just the latest in a string of negligent supervision verdicts and settlements that has cost the State of Washington well over $55 million. [See: PLN , May 2001.]

As a result of this case the Washington Department of Corrections has agreed to implement tougher standards in regard to minor offenders who have a history of violent behavior. In addition, the state legislature has now made it easier for judges to confine mentally ill offenders against their will.

The State paid $3.5 million and the county $2 million to settle the case.

Source: Washington Journal, The Seattle Times, National Law Journal.

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