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$10 Million Post-Appeal Settlement in Oklahoma Jail Prisoner Death Suit

by Matt Clarke

After having most of its defenses rebuked by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Tulsa County, Oklahoma, opted to settle for $10 million a lawsuit brought by the estate of a jail prisoner who died after police and jail personnel ignored obvious signs of suicidal intent and physical injury.

Elliot Earl Williams, 37, was arrested by Owasso Police Department officers in a local hotel lobby, where he had been creating a disturbance. According to the police report, it “was readily apparent” that he “was having a mental breakdown.” He was “rambling on about God, eating dirt.” He also threw himself on the ground, exposed his chest, told police he was going to kill himself that night and asked them to “shoot me twice.” He later asked, “What am I going to have to do to get you to shoot me?”

Police took Williams to their headquarters for “mandatory booking.” He continued to exhibit “strange and manic behavior consistent with acute and severe psychosis.” He responded “yes” when asked if he was suicidal and his Arrest and Booking Report was given a “warning indicator” that he was “suicidal.” He was placed in a holding cell but not on suicide watch.

Williams slammed his head into the cell walls, causing obvious injuries, screamed, danced aimlessly, crawled on all fours, and exhibited other strange behavior. Instead of providing him medical and mental health treatment, police officers took Williams to the Tulsa County jail.

Despite his continued bizarre behavior and being informed that he was injured and suicidal, jail personnel simply put Williams in a cell for belligerent prisoners and later transferred him to a general population cell without having provided any mental health or medical treatment.

A nurse employed by Correctional Healthcare, the jail’s contracted medical services provider, thought he was “faking injury.”

Three or four days after he was booked into the jail, a Correctional Healthcare psychiatrist saw Williams. Thereafter, he was placed in a video-monitored suicide cell. Williams spent days lying immobile on the floor of his cell in his own waste, paralyzed by a neck injury and begging for water while being ignored.

The neck injury finally paralyzed his chest muscles and he was found not breathing. A Correctional Healthcare nurse did not get on the floor to administer CPR, trying ineffectively to do so while standing. Williams died.

Aided by Tulsa attorney Daniel Smolen and others, the estate of Williams filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, police officers, jail personnel and Correctional Healthcare personnel. Correctional Healthcare settled before trial.

The other claims went to a trial in which the jury found in the estate’s favor, awarding it $10 million from Tulsa County and $250,000 in punitive damages against Glanz personally. Defendants appealed.

The Tenth Circuit discounted all of the defendants’ points except one, that the trial court should have taken into consideration the settlement with Correctional Healthcare in determining how much of the $10 million the county would have to pay. The case was remanded for that determination. On December 2, 2019, the trial court signed an agreed settlement judgment awarding the estate $10 million, plus 4.75% post-judgment interest. The estate agreed to drop the $250,000 punitive damage award and $1.5 million in attorney fee claims.

“The suffering that Mr. Williams endured, and the inhumane treatment he encountered at the Tulsa County jail, simply cannot be tolerated in a civilized society,” said Smolen. See: Burke v. Glanz, C. USDC, ND OK, Case No. 4:l-CV-00720-JED-PJC. 


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Related legal case

Burke v. Glanz, C.