Jury: Jail psychiatrist must pay $100,000
Recordnet.com, February 28, 2006
SACRAMENTO – A federal jury has ordered San Joaquin County Jail’s lead psychiatrist to pay $100,000 in punitive damages, holding him personally responsible for the suicide of a mentally ill inmate more than five years ago, attorneys said Monday.
The judgment against Dr. Robert Hart, who heads mental-health programs at the County Jail, came about one month after the same jury ordered the county to pay 19-year-old Maurice Shaw’s mother $758,200.
With the combined judgments, Stockton resident Verdella Shaw could receive a total of $858,200 from San Joaquin County in the death of her son, who was found hanging from a bedsheet Aug. 31, 2000, while an inmate at the County Jail’s mental-health wing.
Assistant County Council David Wooten said the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors has to decide if it will appeal the judgments or pay the damages. Supervisors could pay Hart’s part of the damages if they think he was acting in good faith, or they could hold Hart responsible and put the costs on him, Wooten said. No date has been set for supervisors to take up the matter.
The Sheriff’s Office has begun reviewing operations at the jail to determine if changes are needed, Wooten said.
“It’s pretty obvious the jury was trying to send a message to the county,” he said.
Hart, who also has a private practice and serves as medical director for San Joaquin County Behavioral Health Services, could not be reached for comment Monday.
A jury seated in the Sacramento courtroom of U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. on Jan. 19 found the county responsible for damages in Shaw’s death. The same jurors deliberated again, finding Jan. 22 that Hart, who oversaw the jail’s mental-health care, should pay punitive damages.
Awarding punitive damages in such circumstances is extraordinarily rare, said Lawrence C. Levine, a professor at University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, in Sacramento.
“They tend to be cases of enormous tragedy and egregious wrong-doing,” said Levine, who was not involved in the case.
Geri Lynn Green, the San Francisco attorney for Verdella Shaw, said chronic staff shortages at the jail mean mentally ill inmates such as Maurice Shaw languish alone in their cells confronted only with their inner demons. They belong in a therapeutic setting instead, she said.
According to court papers, Maurice Shaw had a long history of mental illness when he was arrested in Stockton on Feb. 15, 2000, for possessing cocaine.
He was found mentally incompetent to face the drug charges and should have been transferred to Atascadero State Hospital, court papers said.
But a paperwork error left him at the County Jail, where – according to court documents – he often stood naked in his cell and masturbated in view of staff and at other times smeared the walls of his cell with feces. He tearfully threatened suicide days before he killed himself, court papers said.
“The county should be aware that they now can’t do business as usual,” Green said. “The scary, really frightening thing is that it goes on every day in every jail. That was abhorrent to this jury, as it should be to all of us.”
This won’t be the first time county officials have had to pay in the case of a death at the County Jail. In a February 2005 settlement, the county paid $900,000 to the parents of Mondez Denmon, who died in a struggle with jail staffers.