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Parties reach $737,500 settlement following inmate suicide

By: Cristina Janda//April 24, 2013//

Parties reach $737,500 settlement following inmate suicide

By: Cristina Janda//April 24, 2013//

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The state of Wisconsin has agreed to pay a $737,500 settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from the suicide of Jessie Miller while he was an inmate at the Columbia Correctional Institute in Portage.

U.S. District Court Judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin granted the settlement petition March 4. A portion of the settlement, $175,000, was apportioned to one of the minor plaintiffs, to be placed into an interest-bearing, insured and restricted account until her 18th birthday, with deductions for attorney fees and costs to the Guardian ad Litem, attorney Christopher Paul Katers of the Gende Law Office SC, Pewaukee.

Settlement: $737,500

Case name: The Estate of Jessie Miller, et al. v. Thomas Michlowski, Ryan Tobiasz, et al.
Case number: 3:10-cv-00807-wmc
Court: U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin
Injuries claimed: physical, psychological and emotional injury and death
Special damages: emotional and psychological distress; pain and suffering; permanent physical and mental injury; loss of future enjoyment of life; loss of companionship with friends, family and siblings; loss of society and companionship; costs and expenses of the lawsuit; attorney fees; and monetary damages for the estate of the deceased
Date of incident: June 22, 2009
Disposition date: March 4, 2013
Plaintiffs’ attorneys and firm: James Gende II and Christopher Paul Katers, of Gende Law Office SC, Pewaukee
Defendants’ attorneys and firm: Daniel Lennington, Corey Francis Finkelmeyer, Richard Briles Moriarty and Ann Peacock, of the Wisconsin Department of Justice

According to the complaint filed in federal court, Miller committed suicide June 22, 2009, a few days after being transferred to CCI from the Wisconsin Resource Center. Though the individually named defendants in the case recognized Miller as an inmate with serious mental illnesses and a substantial suicide risk, he reportedly was not seen by any health care provider from the time of his intake at CCI until his death.

Upon intake, Miller was placed in a cell with no suicide precautions or 15 minute checks by staff. The plaintiffs stated Miller was given access to materials, including bed sheets, to hang himself.

A February 2009 order adjudicated Miller incompetent and required him to be medicated and treated due to mental illness. According to the case file, in his time at CCI, another inmate witnessed Miller refusing to take his medications.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Miller was not competent to refuse psychotropic medications because he was “incapable of expressing an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of accepting medication or treatment and the alternatives” and he was “substantially incapable of applying an understanding of the advantages, disadvantages and alternatives to his condition in order to make an informed choice as whether to accept or refuse psychotropic medications.”

In the 2009 order, the court committed Miller to the care and custody of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Despite the court order, however, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said, “during the days immediately preceding Miller’s death, some of the defendants failed to administer court-ordered medication in violation of their ministerial duty, and subsequently failed to properly record and/or notify the appropriate parties of Miller’s medication regimen and/or refusals, in addition to failing to provide any sort of mental health care to Miller, an individual with known suicidal tendencies in the days, weeks, months and years preceding his death.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys asserted the defendants knew or should have known before Miller’s death that Miller suffered from mental health issues since before he was 5, and only three days before being transferred to WRC he had attempted suicide. Clinical records reportedly revealed he engaged in multiple self-harm behaviors, including cutting and strangulating himself during separate incidents. One defendant reportedly had noted that Miller had “thoughts of suicide on a daily basis. Due to his past suicidal behavior he may be at a heightened risk for suicide and should therefore be monitored closely.”

The state defendants initially filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that all claims against them in their official capacity should be dismissed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) because those claims were barred by Wisconsin’s immunity in cases where only monetary relief was sought. The defendants also argued that all claims against them in their individual capacities should be dismissed under the same Federal Rule of Civil Procedure because the complaint failed to allege facts from which the court could conclude that the prerequisites of Wis. Stat. § 893.82 for asserting those claims were met. Finally, the defendants asserted qualified immunity as a defense. In a detailed opinion and order entered Sept. 29, 2011, the court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion.

The defendants then filed an answer and defenses Sept. 14, 2012. In general, the defendants claimed they did “not have sufficient knowledge or information to admit” denial of the factual allegations. Again the defendants asserted qualified immunity barred federal claims. They also asserted that they acted in good faith, that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by assumption of the risk, and that the plaintiffs’ injuries or damages were directly or proximately caused by Miller’s own negligence, actions or omissions.

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