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$2.5 Million Settlement Over Prisoner’s Restraint Death in Houston, Texas Jail

by Matt Clarke

The family of a man who died at a jail in Harris County, Texas while being subjected to a dangerous form of restraint settled for $2.5 million in a lawsuit they brought against the county and seven jail officials.

Kenneth Christopher Lucas, 38, was arrested on a child custody issue. About a week later, jailers entered his cell because he had refused to turn over a sharpened piece of metal he had fashioned after breaking a smoke detector. They handcuffed him and placed him face-down on a gurney while a guard sat on his back to keep him from moving. They also had a nurse administer a sedative to him.

The 2014 incident was video-recorded. During the 30-minute ordeal, Lucas repeatedly warned staff that he was unable to breathe and “going to pass out.” They ignored the warnings and Lucas died. The medical examiner ruled his death was a “sudden cardiac death due to hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease during physical restraint.”

Aided by Austin attorney Jeff Edwards, the Lucas family filed a federal civil rights action on behalf of his children under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit alleged former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia failed to discourage deputies from using excessive force at the jail, citing a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memorandum that expressed “serious concerns about use of force at the jail” and “a significant number of incidents where staff used inappropriate force techniques.” The lawsuit focused on the use of the “basic hogtie position” to restrain Lucas, alleging it was known to be dangerous.

A 2015 Harris County grand jury declined to indict the eight jail officials directly involved in the incident. A sheriff’s office internal investigation also cleared them of any wrongdoing. However, Garcia said the death prompted a change in jail procedures.

In September, 2018, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake filed a comprehensive opinion stating that the family had provided sufficient evidence to move on to trial. “Plaintiffs cite the deposition testimony of Sheriff Garcia that the [response team] members followed their training and carried it out as instructed, not just by placing Lucas face down on the gurney in a basic hogtie position, but also by ignoring Lucas’ pleas for help until he was ‘entirely incapacitated,’ and that he knew restraining detainees in a basic hogtie position was dangerous due to the risk of positional asphyxia, which could result in death,” wrote Lake in the opinion.

The settlement was announced in January 2019. “This wasn’t just a case about officers employing deadly restraint, it was a case of the sheriff condoning it and the county teaching people that this was the right wat to do things,” said Edwards, who hoped the $2.5 million payout would teach county officials “that if someone is killed because of your practices, the amount of any settlement will be sizeable.

“It will be noticed by sheriffs and law enforcement throughout the state—and frankly across the country.”

Hopefully, it will lead them to cease using life-threatening restraint practices before another person is killed. See: Salcido v. Harris County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. TX), Case No. 4:15-CV -2155. 



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Related legal case

Salcido v. Harris County