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N.Y. county, deputies ordered to pay $95M in inmate’s death, jury rules

The Erie County Holding Center inmate died after being restrained in 2012

By Aaron Besecker
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — Erie County and five Sheriff’s Office jail deputies must pay at least $95 million in damages to the father of a Holding Center inmate who died after they restrained him in 2012, a jury decided late Monday afternoon.

The jury also determined there should be punitive damages against each of the five current and former deputies, an amount that will be subject to a hearing later this month.

“We will appeal,” said County Attorney Jeremy Toth.

Jurors in the civil case delivered their verdict after 10 weeks of witness testimony and arguments from attorneys.

The only part of their verdict that wasn’t unanimous was on a question about the actions of emergency medical technicians. The jury, which unlike in a criminal trial was not required to be unanimous, cleared the EMTs of violating medical standards in allowing Metcalf to be transported face down on a stretcher inside the jail. One juror disagreed with that conclusion.

The six-person jury, which deliberated about 8 1/2 hours, began weighing the evidence late Friday morning.

Richard Metcalf Sr ., who was in the courtroom for the verdict, cried after the jury foreman completed reading the panel’s verdict. His attorneys from the Brown Chiari law firm declined comment.

The state Commission of Correction concluded eight years ago that jail deputies asphyxiated Metcalf through their restraint methods, including trying a “spit mask” around his neck and putting a pillowcase over his head.

Among the jury’s findings:

—The current and former deputies — Robert Dee, Matthew Cross, Robert States, Edward Kawalek and Scott Emerling — used excessive force on Metcalf.

—Dee, Cross, States and Kawalek were all “deliberately indifferent” to Metcalf’s medical needs — in addition to being negligent — in depriving Metcalf of care. Deliberate indifference is “akin to recklessness but does not require proof of malicious or callous intent,” the judge told the jurors.

—The county deprived Metcalf of his right to adequate medical care or mental health care, in addition to being negligent in providing or failing to provide care.

—At the time of Metcalf’s death, the county showed a pattern or practice of depriving inmates of medical or mental health care at the Holding Center.

—Richard Metcalf Jr. was not negligent.

The standard of proof in a civil case requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence. That’s different from criminal trials, where a person’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Having a preponderance of the evidence means something has been demonstrated to be more likely true than not true.

Breakdown of damages, fault

The awards of compensatory damages broke down this way:

—$45 million for loss of life

—$30 million for pain and suffering, including fear of impending death, while in the Holding Center

—$10 million for pain and suffering from the time Metcalf entered the jail infirmary until his death

—$10 million for fear of impending death

The jury will still be tasked with assigning specific damage awards to each defendant found liable. Those figures are expected to be finalized after the punitive damages hearing, slated to begin April 30.

As part of its verdict, the jury also was asked to apportion fault among defendants. Here’s what the jury said in response to specific questions about fault:

—For the transport of Metcalf from the infirmary to the ambulance: States, 35%; Dee, 30%; Cross, 20%; county, 15%; Kawalek, none.

—For the period of time from when Metcalf was removed from his cell until the time of death: Cross, 35%; Dee, 25%; Kawalek, 15%; county, 15%; States, 10%; Metcalf, none.

—For excessive force: Cross, 30%; Dee, 25%; States, Kawalek and Emerling, 15% each.

—The jury split fault equally among Dee, Cross, States and Kawalek for the civil rights violation of depriving Metcalf of medical care.

—During the time Metcalf was in the Holding Center until deputies removed him from his cell, the county bears all the fault, with Metcalf bearing none.

State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti presided over the trial, which began with opening statements Feb. 5 .

During closing arguments last week, the plaintiff’s attorneys described the case as a relatively simple one that had been drawn out by the defendants’ attorneys who argued blame lied with other parties, like the EMTs and Metcalf, himself.

“They blamed everybody under the sun except for themselves,” attorney Donald Chiari said.

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.


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