Allocation of Fault Required in Verdict Regarding Alaska Detainee’s Suicide; Case Settles for $900,000
In September 2015, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated a $1,078,233 judgment in a lawsuit alleging the City of Hooper Bay was liable in the suicide of a 21-year-old detainee in a police holding cell. The reversal was based on an improper jury instruction regarding allocation of fault.
Louis Bunyan was taken into custody in the early morning hours of July 28, 2011, after fighting with family members while highly intoxicated. He was found unresponsive in the holding cell only 38 minutes after being placed there, with a string tied around his neck.
The facts showed that Officer Robert Tinker had previously conducted a records check on Bunyan, but found nothing. Police records, however, indicated that on four occasions Louis had threatened to commit suicide. Photos after his death “revealed horizontal scarring on his forearms, providing additional evidence of past self-harm.”
A search of Bunyan prior to his placement in protective custody in the holding cell resulted in officers removing items that he could use to harm himself, including his shoelaces. The officers, however, failed to remove a drawstring from his sweatpants, which Bunyan used to commit suicide.
The evidence also revealed that officer Baylen Toots was required by policy to check on “highly intoxicated” detainees every five minutes. There was no record of how often Bunyan was actually checked, but it was not in accordance with policy and he may have been seen only twice in 38 minutes. Two officers acknowledged that they had been checking Facebook during the time they should have been conducting cell checks.
A lawsuit filed by Bunyan’s family claimed the City of Hooper Bay was negligent in his death. The trial court denied the city’s motion for summary judgment, and the matter proceeded to trial in February 2014. The jury found the city negligent and awarded $960,000 in damages to Bunyan’s mother and two children; the court entered judgment of $1,078,233, which included attorney fees and costs.
The Alaska Supreme Court held the trial court had properly denied summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity, as precedent required jailers to prevent self-inflicted harm that is reasonably foreseeable. It also found the city was not entitled to a directed verdict. Next, the Supreme Court held that testimony related to economic loss was properly admitted.
However, the Court found error with a jury instruction that effectively precluded the jury from allocating fault between Bunyan and the city as required by AS 09.17.080. That statute requires apportionment of damages in “all actions involving fault of more than one person.”
Intoxication does not render someone free of fault unless he is “so intoxicated and his mental and physical faculties so impaired that he was incapable of exercising due care for himself.” The judgment and jury award were vacated and the case remanded for proceedings regarding Bunyan’s intoxication and the allocation of fault between him and the city. See: City of Hooper Bay v. Bunyan, 359 P.3d 972 (Alaska 2015).
After remand, a settlement agreement was reached in January 2016 in the amount of $900,000, reflecting a 20% reduction from the jury award. According to news reports, the settlement followed negotiations with the city’s insurance provider.
“I miss my son every day and wish he was still here,” Bunyan’s mother said through her attorney. “I pray his death helps others know – they have to watch, closely, those they take into jail.” Bunyan’s family was represented by attorneys Jim Valcarce and David Henderson.
Additional sources: Alaska Dispatch News, www.courthousenews.com
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Related legal case
City of Hooper Bay v. Bunyan
|Cite||359 P.3d 972 (Alaska 2015)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|