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$3 Million From Forsyth County, No Stay in Civil Case Against Wellpath Nurse Indicted for Involuntary Manslaughter of N.C. Jail Detainee

by Eike Blohm, MD

After a federal court in North Carolina declined to stay a civil case against Wellpath and a nurse it employed accused in the wrongful death of a detainee at the Forsyth County Jail, the county settled its part in the case for $3 million on May 25, 2022.

The order denying the stay was issued by U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles for the Middle District of North Carolina on January 1, 2022. Wellpath and the nurse, Michelle Heughins, 47, had requested the stay pending resolution of criminal charges in the death of the detainee, John Neville.

Neville, who was 56, was arrested on December 1, 2019, on a misdemeanor charge and booked into the jail in Winston-Salem. Overnight, he experienced a medical emergency and fell from the top bunk onto the concrete floor. Guards found him confused. When he allegedly tried to bite them, he was “hogtied” and placed face down in an observation cell. Though he wheezed, “I can’t breathe,” it took guards 12 minutes to remove his restraints. By that time, he wasn’t breathing. CPR was used to restart his heart, but he was pronounced dead in a hospital two days later from a brain injury due to lack of oxygen. [See: PLN, Dec. 2020, p.18.]

Neville’s death went publicly unacknowledged by Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough, Jr., for six months. Then, in July 2020, District Attorney Jim O’Neill filed involuntary manslaughter charges against five guards involved and Heughins. A grand jury indicted her on April 4, 2022, but not the guards — Lt. Lavette M. Williams, Cpl. Edward J. Roussel, Sarah E. Poole, Antonio Woodley Jr., and Christopher B. Stamper. [See: PLN, June 2022, p.62.]

Meanwhile Sean Neville filed suit for his father’s wrongful death lawsuit in the Court on September 28, 2021, accusing Wellpath, the county and Kimbrough, as well as the guards and Heughins. Wellpath and Heughins filed their motion to stay the civil case until completion of the criminal proceedings, citing her fear of self-incrimination.

Taking up that request, the Court began by noting the Constitution “does not mandate the stay of civil proceedings in the face of criminal proceedings,” as held in Maryland v. Universal Elections, Inc., 729 F. 3d 370 (4th Cir. 2013). Disposition of cases on a docket is under the sole discretion of the court, which weighs the competing interests, but must not grant any stay that is “immoderate in extent,” per Landis v. N. Am. Co., 209 U.S. 248 (1936).

Conceding that the civil case had the potential to prejudice proceedings in the criminal case, the Court nevertheless declined to stay the civil case for such a potentially lengthy time, saying that would be “immoderate.” It also recognized Plaintiff’s strong interest in discovering relevant facts, and that prolonged delays may affect individuals’ recollection of events or lead to loss of evidentiary materials. Additionally, the Court acknowledged the public’s interest in seeing the case resolved.

That apparently also hurried the county to the settlement table. Its $3 million payment resolved all of Neville’s claims against the county, Kimbrough and the guards. It also included costs and legal fees for Neville’s Winston-Salem attorneys, Christopher R. Clifton and Michael A. Grace, of Grace Tisdale & Clifton, and Whitney R. Pakalka and Richard J. Keshian of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP. See: Neville v. Wellpath LLC, USDC (M.D.N.C.), Case No. 1:21-cv-00758.

Coming on the heels of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder by Minneapolis cops, Neville’s death sparked protests and the 49-day occupation of a city park. By the time that ended, police had made 55 arrests.

In October 2022, Forysth County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Stone granted a motion by Heughins’ criminal defense attorneys to inspect the jail for “measurements and documentation … necessary to provide an adequate defense.” 

Additional sources: Greensboro News & Record, New York Times, Winston-Salem Journal

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