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$4 Million Settlement in R&B Singer’s Death from Drug Withdrawal in Ohio Jail for Failure to Pay Child Support

$4 Million Settlement in R&B Singer’s Death from Drug Withdrawal in Ohio Jail for Failure to Pay Child Support

A $4 million settlement has been reached in a lawsuit that claimed the policies of Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Jail (CCJ) and the medical negligence of its contractor, Midwest Medical Staffing Inc., caused the death of R&B singer Sean Levert.

Levert entered CCJ on March 24, 2008 after being sentenced to 22 months in prison for non-payment of $90,000 in outstanding child support obligations. Prior to entering CCJ, Levert had been prescribed two milligrams of Xanax three times daily for an anxiety disorder. During sentencing, the judge noted the prescription and mentioned it in a personal note to the Sheriff.

At booking, the prescription Levert took with him containing 37 prescribed Xanax was confiscated by jail authorities. “At no time, from the moment Mr. Levert entered [CCJ] until his death six days later, did defendants provide Mr. Levert any of his prescribed Xanax medication,” charged the civil rights complaint.

Prior to Levert’s entry into CCJ, it was well known that abruptly discontinuing Xanax, a drug classified as a benzodiazepine, can lead to severe, painful and terrifying withdrawal symptoms that often lead to death. Long term users of benzodiazepines can not be safely discontinued unless the medication is tapered off in a slow and deliberate fashion while under the care of medical professionals.

Nurse Christine Main completed the intake medical screening on Levert. The attempt she made to verify the Xanax prescription resulted in incomplete information from the hospital, and neither she nor anyone else made efforts to make that verification.

With CCJ being overcrowded, Levert was forced to sleep on the floor, which exacerbated his medical conditions by depriving him of sleep. His cellmate noticed that Levert was anxious, sleeping sitting up, talking and laughing to himself and was experiencing hallucinations. Levert’s request to receive his Xanax was met by CCJ nurses with indifference.

The nurses did not check his vital signs, perform a mental status exam or take any other action to investigate Levert’s medical status. On March 30, he was taken to CCJ’s psychiatric floor with hallucinations and bizarre behavior. Rather than conduct a mental or physical assessment, Levert was locked in his cell because he was “bumming out” the other prisoners.

For the next 21 hours, he suffered classic signs of Xanax withdrawal. Nurse Jane Lawrence ordered Levert placed on a restraint chair at around 10:45. She failed to administer an injection of haldol, ativan and benedryl as ordered by Dr. Donald Kellon, CCJ’s physician.

Levert later died of “Alprazolam [benzodiazepine] withdrawal” according to the coroner’s verdict. The settlement in the lawsuit was reached on June 16, 2010. The plaintiff was represented by attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein.

“My hope is that Cuyahoga County will support Sean’s law in an effort to prevent other families from experiencing the pain we have endured,” said Levert’s widow, Angela Lowe. The law would require every county to give each prisoner medical, dental and mental health screenings upon entry. CCJ has already changed its policies to require the screenings, and to have a prisoner’s prescription verified or scheduled to see a doctor the next day. Of course, the practice of locking up parents who fall in arrears of child support obligations also contributes to America’s burgeoning prison population. It would appear ironic that having had Levert imprisoned for failing to pay child support his ex-wife will now collect a $4 million settlement. See: Lowe v. Cuyahoga County, USDC, N.D. Ohio, Case No: 1:08-cv-1339.

Additional source: The Plain Dealer

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Related legal case

Lowe v. Cuyahoga County