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$1 Million Settlement in Oklahoma Jail Prisoner Wrongful Death Suit

by Matt Clarke

In May 2011, Oklahoma County approved a $1 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit involving a prisoner who was first denied his anti-seizure medication and then fatally beaten by guards after he had a seizure at the Oklahoma County jail. Correctional Health Care Management of Oklahoma, Inc. (CHM), the jail’s medical service provider, had previously entered into a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs.

Christopher Beckman, 34, was arrested for DUI, driving with a suspended license and not wearing a seatbelt. He was transported to the Oklahoma County Detention Center. During the booking process jail employees confiscated his medications, despite his informing them that he needed his prescribed Xanax and Lortab to prevent seizures and that he would experience seizures if he didn’t take the medication.

Two days later Beckman still had not been given his medications, and suffered a seizure in his cell. Responding deputies struck Beckman on the back of his head, slammed his head into the elevator and ran him into a door headfirst to open it as they took him to the jail’s clinic. At the clinic, Beckman was beaten in the face.

He was then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later. The medical examiner’s report listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head. Beckman’s wife, parents and estate filed a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court against CHM, the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners, Sheriff John Whetsel and Deputies Justin Mark Isch, Robert Roy, Gavin Douglas Littlejohn, William Ira Hathorn, Kellie Cunningham, Ervin Busby and Teri Streeter.

The complaint alleged that Littlejohn, Roy and Isch had caused Beckman’s fatal injuries while the other deputies watched and failed to intervene. The suit included claims of excessive use of force; deliberate indifference to serious medical needs; and failure to properly hire, train, supervise and discipline deputies working at the jail. A state-law wrongful death claim was also included pursuant to 12 O.S. §§ 1053 and 1054.

The sheriff asked the FBI to investigate Beckman’s death. That investigation resulted in three of the deputies being criminally charged, and the civil case was delayed until the criminal trials were resolved.

One deputy, who had been fired, was acquitted of using excessive force against Beckman. Another former deputy was sentenced to six months in prison for using excessive force early in the confrontation. A third former deputy was sentenced to eight months for lying to a federal grand jury and the FBI. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.50; Dec. 2009, p.33].

After the deputies’ criminal convictions, the remaining defendants agreed to settle the lawsuit for $1 million. Of the settlement, $110,387.90 went to Beckman’s surviving spouse, $220,775.82 to each of his parents, $400,000 for attorney fees and $48,060.46 for costs. Oklahoma City attorneys Ed Abel, Kelly S. Bishop and Nicholas J. Larby represented the plaintiffs, including David Beckman – Christopher Beckman’s brother and the personal representative of his estate.

Oklahoma County Commissioners said the settlement would result in a small increase in property taxes for county residents over the next three years. See: Beckman v. Correctional Health Care Management of Oklahoma, Inc., U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:08-cv-01076-L.

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Related legal case

Beckman v. Correctional Health Care Management of Oklahoma, Inc.