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Virginia Sheriff’s Office, PHS Settle Wrongful Death Suit for $1.6 Million

Prison Health Services (PHS), a private for-profit company that provides medical care to prisoners, has agreed to pay $1.5 million to the family of a man who died at a Virginia jail, with the sheriff’s office paying another $100,000.

Joseph Combs, 57, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from bipolar disorder, was arrested and taken to the Portsmouth City Jail in June 2006 after mental health workers were unable to find a bed for him at a hospital.

Police were called by Combs’ wife after he threatened her; he had stopped eating and taking care of himself several days earlier, and was believed to be suffering from a bipolar episode at the time. He was charged with a misdemeanor offense.

Combs was found dead six days after he was booked into the jail, naked and lying in his own feces, which he had smeared on himself and in his cell. His death was caused by dehydration and pneumonia.

Combs’ widow, Granada, sued PHS, Sheriff Bill Watson and other defendants in circuit court for failing to prevent her husband’s death. After jurors were unable to reach a verdict following a November 2009 trial, PHS, two PHS employees and Dr. Luis F. Ignacio offered to settle the case for $1.5 million.

Of that amount, $600,000 went to Allen & Allen and Bricker Anderson, the law firms representing Combs’ family. An additional $192,711 was allocated to cover costs and expenses in the case. Granada Combs received $424,373.27, while Combs’ four adult children each received $70,728.88.

The family’s claims against the sheriff’s office were scheduled to be tried again in May 2010, but the case settled on the day of trial for $100,000. Sheriff Watson, who blamed PHS and medical personnel for Combs’ death, called the situa-tion tragic. “Any way you look at it, a man lost his life. That’s the bottom line,” he said. PHS is no longer the medical pro-vider at the Portsmouth City Jail. See: Combs v. Prison Health Services, Portsmouth County Circuit Court (VA), Case No. CL07001643-00.

Sources: The Virginia Pilot,

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Related legal case

Combs v. Prison Health Services