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$10.25 Million Jury Award in Suit over Oklahoma Jail Prisoner’s Death

by Matt Clarke

On March 20, 2017, an Oklahoma federal jury awarded $10.25 million to the estate of a prisoner who died at the Tulsa County Jail.

According to court documents, Elliot Earl Williams, 37, a U.S. Army veteran, was arrested by Owasso police officers responding to a complaint about a disturbance at a hotel in October 2011. In the arrest report, an officer wrote it “was readily apparent that [Williams] was having a mental breakdown.” Williams engaged in bizarre behavior, said he was going to kill himself and twice asked the police to shoot him. At one point he said, “What do I have to do to get you to shoot me?”

Williams was transported to the Owasso Police Department headquarters where he “continued to exhibit strange and manic behavior consistent with acute and severe psychosis.” During the booking process he told officers he was suicidal, which was noted on the booking form along with a “suicidal” warning indicator.

Instead of being taken to a mental health facility for treatment, Williams was placed in a holding cell. He was not put on suicide watch. Surveillance video from the cell showed Williams displaying further bizarre behavior and forcibly ramming his head into the cell walls and door.

The next day, Williams was transported to the Tulsa County Jail where he continued to act oddly during booking, including some posturing with his hands that was consistent with a serious brain injury. Williams told the booking nurse that he was suicidal and had rammed his head into the cell walls and door. He later had what appeared to be a seizure, during which he may have struck his head on the floor.

Williams was hoisted onto a gurney with inoperable restraints, but did not receive a medical evaluation. He lost control of his bladder and defecated in his clothing. Jail personnel wheeled him into the “tank,” a holding cell for loud or belligerent prisoners, then later dumped him off the gurney into a shower where he was left for two hours. The whole time, jail staff taunted Williams, accusing him of “faking” his symptoms. He was finally placed in a video-monitored suicide cell.

Two days later, on October 27, 2011, he collapsed in the cell while dragging himself across the floor. A nurse refused to get down on the floor to properly administer CPR and attempted to do so while standing. Williams died; it was later determined he had a broken neck.

Aided by Tulsa attorneys Louis W. Bullock, Daniel Smolen and Gregory J. Denney, Williams’ estate filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging inadequate mental health policies, understaffing in the medical department, inadequate and untimely medical treatment, inadequate screening, limitations on off-site treatment and inadequate training had violated Williams’ Eighth Amendment rights and resulted in his death. The suit was filed against then-Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, jail staff and Correctional Healthcare Management.

Security video taken at the jail showed Williams unable to move his legs after he was taken off the gurney and placed in the suicide cell. It showed him being ignored as he begged for help and told jail staff he couldn’t move. In the video, he tries to drag himself to where there was food and water, but collapses and dies before he can get there. In closing arguments, Smolen told the jury the trial was not about how Williams’ neck was injured, but rather whether jail staff knew he was hurt and ignored him. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.46].

The jury entered a verdict for Williams’ estate, awarding $10 million against the county and $250,000 in punitive damages against former Sheriff Glanz in his individual capacity (Glanz pleaded guilty to an unrelated misdemeanor corruption charge in July 2016 and received a one-year suspended sentence). Correctional Healthcare Management had agreed to settle prior to trial.

Following the verdict, the district court denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and motion for new trial or remittitur in July 2017. Costs were taxed against the defendants in the amount of $24,408.02, while a motion for attorney fees filed by Williams’ estate remains pending. See: Burke v. Glanz, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 1:11-cv-00720-JED-PJC. 

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Related legal case

Burke v. Glanz