A settlement has been reached in a $5.35 million wrongful death suit filed by the mother of a Roanoke City Jail inmate who died by suicide while in custody.
The agreement calls for an award of $370,000, roughly two-thirds of which will cover legal costs and expenses, with the remainder distributed among a number of the man’s relatives.
Clifton Antonio Harper, 22, was being held at the Roanoke jail when, on Dec. 7, 2015, he was found in his cell, hanging from a bedsheet and unresponsive, officials have said. Deputies used CPR and defibrillators to try to revive him, but he was pronounced dead some time later at a hospital.
The following year, Harper’s mother, Karren Buchanan, filed suit against the top officers at the jail — Sheriff Tim Allen, Maj. David Bell and Lt. Brian Geiser — as well as three deputies, a social worker and Dr. Adetokunbo Ladenika, a psychiatrist who worked at the jail and treated Harper during his detention there.
Buchanan’s wrongful death complaint argued that Harper had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia. It argued that he had been hospitalized and detained by police many times and had, on numerous occasions after his arrest in July 2014, told his custodians he intended to harm himself.
An observation video from Harper’s cell, recorded the day he died, showed him tying his sheet to the bars in the room, Buchanan’s complaint said. The complaint claimed that jail officials “failed to intervene concerning the clear threat, and also failed to conduct rounds with the frequency required by Mr. Harper’s condition,” adding that “medical care providers failed to take adequate and effective actions in response to the threat Mr. Harper posed to himself.”
Buchanan’s civil action sought $5 million in compensatory relief and $350,000 in punitive damages.
On Tuesday, nearly four years after Harper’s death, a judge signed off on a $370,000 settlement agreement that will release all parties from legal liability.
The defendants from the sheriff’s office will pay $195,000 through the state’s risk management protection plan, while Ladenika will pay the remaining balance of $175,000 through his employer, Wellpath LLC. A social worker who initially was named as a defendant was non-suited from the case earlier this year.
According to a distribution list, $108,333 of the settlement will go toward attorneys’ fees, while legal expenses ran another $144,704, totaling more than $253,037, all incurred over the past several years as the case proceeded toward a jury trial that had been set for next year.
The remaining $116,328 will be split to varying degrees among Buchanan and several other relatives.
Both the plaintiff’s attorney, Mark Krudys of Richmond, and a spokeswoman for the Roanoke Sheriff’s Office said Friday that they could not comment on the settlement.
Two more wrongful death suits against Allen and other jail officials are pending in Roanoke Circuit Court, but those cases have seen no new filings of late.
The issue of Roanoke inmate suicides grew more prominent over the past half-decade; between 2015 and August 2019, seven people took their own lives in the city jail.
On his re-election to a second term in 2017, Allen vowed to enhance staff training and address issues of public safety.
“Jails have become recovery centers,” he said at the time. “We’re providing treatment, more so than ever before.
“We can’t close our doors. Other mental health organizations can. We can’t.”
The following year, the facility launched a new mental health unit that included therapeutic housing as part of its efforts to better help those with mental illness. In 2019, a statement from the jail said the staff had successfully intervened in 14 attempted suicides that year and had put another 212 people on suicide watch.
In September, Allen announced plans to retire Jan. 8 after more than three decades in law enforcement, and will leave with one year remaining in his second term. Bell, his second in command, will take over as interim sheriff.
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