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Texas City Settles Suit Over Jail Prisoner’s Death for $1.25 Million

by Matthew Clarke

In April 2016, the City of Arlington, Texas agreed to pay the estate of a man who died in the municipal jail $1.25 million to settle a wrongful death suit. Two jailers were indicted for negligent homicide, two others were initially fired and one was reprimanded.

Jonathan Ryan Paul, 42, had a long history of mental illness when he was booked into the Arlington City Jail following his arrest for outstanding warrants by police officers responding to a domestic disturbance call. The next day Paul was removed from his cell after causing a disturbance; he struggled with four jailers, who restrained him and used pepper spray. Jail staff said they later saw him on the floor of his isolation cell, unresponsive. Those events were captured on surveillance video.

About 15 minutes after he was first seen to be unresponsive, EMTs were called. It took them about eight minutes to arrive. Paul regained a pulse after heroic resuscitation efforts, but his body was unable to sustain life and he died three days later, on March 13, 2015, after his family authorized the removal of life support.

Aided by Dallas attorneys Luis P. Bartolomei and Ramez F. Shamien, Paul’s estate then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and jail officials. The suit alleged excessive use of force, including compression of Paul’s airway which caused him to stop breathing, and excessive use of pepper spray. It also alleged failure to prevent excessive use of force or to provide medical care.

After the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office found that physical restraints and pepper spray had played a significant role in Paul’s death, jailer Pedro Medina, 33, and Lead Detention Officer Steven Schmidt, 57, were indicted in November 2015 for criminally negligent homicide. The indictments accused them of restraining Paul in a way that prevented him from breathing, using excessive pepper spray and failing to provide timely medical assistance. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.36].

Schmidt retired, while Medina was fired. Additionally, jail guards Wes Allen and Matt Fisher were terminated; according to disciplinary reports, they had merely watched Paul lying on his cell floor, facedown and motionless, instead of entering the cell and taking action. The jail’s internal investigation also recommended a five-day suspension for Sgt. Frank Vacante, due to his failure “to demonstrate the qualities of leadership” or “exercise appropriate supervision of subordinates.”

The city settled the lawsuit filed by Paul’s estate for $1.25 million on April 12, 2016. Referring to the settlement as a “slap on the hand,” Paul’s uncle, Marvin Phillips, said he hoped the litigation would “cause some changes in how they treat human beings.” See: Waters v. City of Arlington, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:15-cv-00384-A.

Following arbitration hearings, Allen and Fisher were reinstated to their positions at the Arlington City Jail in September 2016, with back pay. 

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