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Oregon County Pays $2.85 Million for Dehydration Death of Mentally Ill Jail Prisoner

by Dale Chappell

Lincoln County, Oregon agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a 55-year-old mentally ill prisoner who died of dehydration at the county jail.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in 2016, claimed that jailers had violated Bradley Thomas’ civil rights when they were “deliberately indifferent” to his serious medical and psychiatric needs following his arrest on March 23, 2015. Jail staff knew Thomas; he had been hospitalized due to his mental illness while in custody previously. This time was no different. According to intake reports, Thomas was exhibiting signs of severe mental illness, including hearing voices and seeing visions.

Despite recognizing that he had serious mental health problems, jail staff did nothing about it, Thomas’ attorneys alleged. The day after his arrest, Thomas was certified as mentally ill; the next day, a Lincoln County mental health investigator declared him a danger to himself and others, and unable to provide for his basic personal needs. That same day, Thomas was disciplined for “defiance toward staff” and failing to follow “the simple rules” of the jail. At least four other disciplinary reports would follow, for failing to keep his cell clean, shouting, refusing to obey an order and putting things in the toilet.

On April 3, 2015, jail staff shut off the water to Thomas’ cell and drained his toilet, because he kept putting things in the commode, including his food. At that time, employees reported that he had gone at least three days without eating. The following day, staff reported Thomas was eating feces from the toilet and acting “very unusual.” Still, nobody sought help for him.

On April 7, jail staff noted that Thomas was too weak to walk and dragged him by his arms to his civil commitment hearing, where he was unable to speak or communicate with his attorney. He was ordered committed for 180 days and returned to his cell. During welfare checks that evening, employees reported Thomas lying naked on his cell floor but did nothing to help him. He was found dead the next morning. Autopsy results indicated extreme dehydration.

The district court approved a settlement agreement between the county and Thomas’ family for $2.85 million on October 19, 2017, and the case was dismissed two months later. The settlement stipulated that Thomas’ mother and daughter would receive a total of $1.8 million, and their lawyers would get $950,000 in fees plus expenses.

“This case shows there is a price to pay when jails treat the mentally ill as disposable,” stated Jennifer Middleton, one of the attorneys representing Thomas’ family. See: Thomas v. Lincoln County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:16-cv-00562-AA. 

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Lincoln County