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$1.56 Million Settlement for Texas Jail Death Due to Drug Withdrawal

$1.56 Million Settlement for Texas Jail Death Due to Drug Withdrawal

by Matt Clarke

One day before a trial was scheduled to begin in a Texas federal district court, Gregg County officials agreed to settle a case involving the death of a prisoner who was denied the prescription medications she had been taking, resulting in fatal seizures.

Amy Lynn Cowling, 33, was arrested on outstanding traffic and minor theft warrants and booked into the Gregg County Jail on December 24, 2010. Hours later she was dead. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.32; May 2011, p.16].

Cowling had been taking prescription methadone and alprazolam (Xanax), but the jail had a policy of not allowing prisoners to receive those medications. Withdrawal from both drugs was known to potentially cause seizures, injury and/or death, and requests for medical care by Cowling, her mother, other prisoners and jail staff were ignored. An autopsy found that Cowling had died due to seizures caused by withdrawal from her prescription medications.

Cowling’s mother, Vicki Bankhead, as well as her estate and a representative for her three children, filed a federal civil rights action in 2011 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Gregg County. Two years later the parties agreed to settle the case for a total of approximately $1.56 million.

Cowling’s children, then 14, 17 and 19 years old, received $1.15 million for her wrongful death while Bankhead received a net award of $207,000 in a separate agreement that included an additional payment of around $200,000 to the three children. Attorney fees paid out of the settlement agreement totaled $431,250, plus costs of $94,855.76.

The court-approved settlement was structured with 95% of the award to the two younger children and 85% of the award to the eldest being placed in an annuity. The remainder will be used to fund education costs, with $25,000 per child being held by the court to pay for a car and $5,000 set aside for therapy for the younger children.

“It is a tragic situation, and we believe that the children were fairly compensated and that, hopefully, Gregg County will change their policies regarding medications and prescriptions,” stated attorney Jimmy M. Negem.

Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano was praised for conducting a thorough investigation which found that several guards had altered records related to the jail staff’s monitoring of Cowling, who was in an isolation cell when she died. Two guards, Tomeka Cross, 36, and Brian West, 32, were charged with tampering with a government record – a state jail felony. Four other guards, one of them a corporal, were fired and a fifth resigned.

Following Cowling’s death, the Gregg County Jail added two weekly visits by nurse practitioners to the once-a-week scheduled visit by a County Health Authority doctor, and added two more paramedics or licensed vocational nurses to the facility’s staff.

In addition to Negem, Cowling’s mother and estate were represented by attorneys Joe M. Worthington, Jarom T. Tefteller, Charles T. Tefteller and Debbie Branscum. See: Bankhead v. Gregg County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tex.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00279-JRG.


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Related legal case

Bankhead v. Gregg County