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Inmate's overdose death in Botetourt jail leads to $350,000 settlement

A judge has approved a $350,000 settlement of a lawsuit filed by the family of a Botetourt County man who was charged with public intoxication, taken to jail to sober up, and found three hours later suffering from a drug overdose that killed him.

The brother of David Wayne Mays said he hoped the case would lead smaller facilities such as the Botetourt-Craig Regional Jail to better evaluate the medical needs of incoming inmates, “as opposed to just being being placed in the jail and left to die.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski approved the wrongful death settlement Tuesday.

On July 26, 2016, Botetourt County sheriff’s deputies found Mays slumped over the steering wheel of his parked pickup truck, with a bag of prescription drugs at his side.

Mays, 57, was charged with public intoxication and released a short time later. The next day, authorities were called to a home, where they again found Mays with slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and difficulty staying awake.

He was charged a second time and taken to jail, where a magistrate ordered that he be held until sober.

Despite knowing that May had consumed large amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs, deputies placed him in a cell without conducting a medical evaluation, the lawsuit alleged.

Mays was found unresponsive a short time later and rushed to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where he died July 28 of what was determined to be an overdose of hydrocodone, Xanax and other drugs.

Botetourt County authorities denied wrongdoing, and plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Thomson outlined at a hearing Tuesday a number of challenges the family would have faced had the case gone to trial.

There was little economic loss to Mays’ survivors, and a number of legal issues remained in a case that Thomson said was more “acts of omission, rather than commission” by six government employees.

In 2018, the $8 million lawsuit was dismissed by the late Judge Glen Conrad, who ruled that while Mays’ death was “undeniably tragic,” there was nothing to distinguish it “from the multitude of drug and alcohol abusers the police deal with every day.”

Conrad wrote that there was no evidence — such as external injuries, abnormal breathing, choking or vomiting — that could have been used to show that deputies acted with “deliberate indifference” to Mays’ medical condition.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that the circumstances of Mays’ death were different from that of earlier wrongful death cases on which Conrad had based his opinion.

Although the case was returned to Roanoke’s federal court, another question still to be resolved was whether the sheriff’s deputies were entitled to qualified immunity. Under that legal doctrine, there must be proof that a “reasonable official” would have known their actions violated the rights of the plaintiff.

After hearing from attorneys on both sides and members of Mays’ family, Urbanski said he was satisfied that a settlement negotiated by Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou was fair and reasonable.

Of the $350,000, 40% will go to legal fees from Thomson and a second firm involved in the case. Another $24,000 will be used to pay costs. That leaves a little more than $185,000 to be distributed evenly between Mays’ two sons.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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