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$275,000 Paid In Excessive-Force Michigan Jail Death Lawsuit

by John E. Dannenberg

On May 25, 2006, Kent County, Michigan agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit for $275,000 brought by the family of a Grand Rapids man who died of a heart attack suffered after struggling with arresting police. County officials denied any liability, but paid off to minimize their exposure to the $1.4 million demand.

52-year-old Willie Thurman, after having been arrested for auto theft, died on his birthday, March 11, 2003, of a heart attack at the Kent County jail. Thurman, who was mentally ill, entered a running empty car by his family?s home, thinking it was a surprise birthday gift. He drove it off the parking lot and parked it nearby on the street. Police found him in the car, which had been stolen. He panicked upon being taken to jail, where subduing deputies allegedly broke nine of 130 lb. Thurman?s ribs, hog-tied him and, when he stopped breathing, failed to timely seek medical aid. The Medical Examiner noted Thurman?s history of emphysema and paranoid schizophrenia, which ?probably put extra stress on his heart during the arrest and contributed to his death.? Police investigations declared no wrong-doing on their part.

The complaint was filed against jail employees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of Thurman?s federal constitutional rights as well as supplemental state law claims. Allegations were that Thurman was initially calm upon arrest, but panicked in the jail after unsuccessfully trying to phone his family. He told other prisoners he feared being locked a cell with someone who might try to take his eyeglasses, rendering him unable to see. At his initial jail medical screening, he told the interviewer something ?very wrong [was] happening in [my] head,? and begged for an ambulance. Becoming increasingly panicked, he did not threaten anyone. Nonetheless, a Deputy pepper-sprayed him, several times -- even directly in the face after he slumped to the floor. A group of deputies then grabbed him, forced him down on his stomach, and hog-tied him. When Thurman became unresponsive, a deputy scraped his handcuff key on the bottom of one of Thurman?s feet. Although he got no response, he failed to try CPR or summon any aid. During the struggle, Thurman also suffered a head contusion and a broken sternum. A nurse later called an ambulance, but none came for 45 minutes. At the hospital, he was declared brain dead, and died three days later.

The complaint alleged unreasonable use of force, and violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 540 of Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, it claimed municipal policy liability. The state causes of action included assault and battery charges against the deputies and gross negligence in the performance of their duties.

Of the $275,000 settlement, the family?s attorneys were awarded $168,868. The balance of $106,132 was distributed among nine survivors and the funeral home. See: Thurman v. Kent County, U.S.D.C. W.D. MI, Case No. 1:05-CV-0177.

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Related legal case

Thurman v. Kent County

The complaint and settlement are available in the briefbank.