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California County and Corizon Settle Jail Prisoner Death Suit for $1 Million

In December 2013, Alameda County, California, and Tennessee-based Corizon Health, Inc. agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by a minor son of a Santa Rita Jail prisoner who died of a heart attack after a being shocked with a Taser and struck by deputies.

Martin Harrison, 50, was a chronic alcohol user, but otherwise healthy when Oakland police arrested him for driving while intoxicated and booked him into the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. He began acting erratically while at the jail, possibly due to acute alcohol withdrawal. On August 16, 2010, he had broken a food tray, made a mess in his cell and flooded his cell when deputies arrived to try to remove him from the cell so it could be cleaned. They found him cowering behind a mattress, screaming that someone was trying to kill him.

When they moved in on him, he charged them. According to court documents, they responded by striking him, kicking him, repeatedly shocking him with Tasers and improperly restraining him. He was transferred to the jail infirmary, which was operated by Prison Health Services. Eventually he was taken to a hospital where he died two days after the confrontation. The coroner listed the cause of death as lack of oxygen to the brain due to a heart attack Harrison suffered after the confrontation with deputies.

Aided by attorney John Burris, Harrison's youngest son filed a civil right action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court alleging excessive use of force and improper medical care. Corizon, which had merged with Prison Health Services and Alameda County, decided to settle the lawsuit by paying $500,000 each for a total of $1 million. $255,000 of the settlement is for attorney fees while the remaining $745,000 will be placed in a trust account for Harrison's youngest son, who was 7-years old when his father died.

"No amount of money can replace the loss of Mr. Harrison's life for his young son, particularly given the closeness of the relationship," Burris said. "Hopefully, this case will have the impact of improving the policies, procedures and conduct of the deputies and medical personnel in the future when presented with a similar situation as Mr. Harrison's."

Harrison's four other children took their claims against Corizon and Alameda County to trial, and that case eventually settled for $8.3 million. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.54].


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