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$3.279 Million in Costs and Fees Awarded in Wrongful Death Suit Involving Epileptic Prisoner

by R. Bailey

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a federal district court was asked to resolve an attorney fees dispute as part of a settlement in a prisoner’s wrongful death case.

Robert Awalt died while in the custody of a jail in Grundy County, Illinois. His wife, Elizabeth Awalt, had already contacted the jail upon his arrest and advised them that Robert needed epileptic medications and 24-hour observation.

However, when Robert pleaded for medical assistance, the officers taunted him and told him “you’re in jail, deal with it.” They left him unattended and later found him unconscious after swallowing a sock during one of his seizures. He died on September 20, 2010 due to asphyxiation.

Elizabeth filed a wrongful death suit in federal court. The jail settled prior to trial. Dr. Stephen Cullinan – who had been implicated in the deaths of other prisoners in multiple states and agreed to the suspension of his medical license in 2014 – reached a separate settlement after his first trial ended in a hung jury. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.40]. The jail’s medical providers, Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. (CHC) and Healthcare Professionals, Ltd. (HPL), settled soon thereafter.

The parties submitted a fee application for resolution, and the district court made adjustments according to reasonable determinations of attorney fees and costs.

When one lead attorney requested fees at $600 per hour, the court ruled that because other top-tier lawyers were charging $550 per hour, that rate was reasonable here.While the attorney had additional years of experience, “at this level of expertise an attorney’s number of years of experience was largely irrelevant,” the district court wrote.

The court also ruled that where other paralegals of record were paid $125 per hour, that was a reasonable fee for paralegals in this case. It rejected the defendants’ request for $100 per hour and the plaintiff’s request for $150 per hour for two paralegals.

The district court concluded that per statute, expert witness fees were not to be awarded in § 1983 cases, only in those brought under § 1981 or § 1981(a). Accordingly, $271,392.10 billed for expert witnesses was deducted from the costs.

Following a detailed review of the attorney fees and costs, on May 23, 2018 the court awarded Elizabeth Awalt $3,172,650 in fees plus $106,477.72 in expenses as the prevailing party in the case. CHC has since appealed the fee award. See: Awalt v. Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc., U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:11-cv-06142. 


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Related legal case

Awalt v. Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc.