$1 million lawsuit filed against Champaign County for death of inmate Toya Frazier

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Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

A common area between pods at the Champaign County satellite jail in east Urbana on March 11, 2013.

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed in federal court alleging that Champaign County jail officials caused inmate Toya Frazier’s death by neglecting their duty to give “adequate medical attention.”

The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1 by Frazier’s sister Jacqueline Jones against the county, Sheriff Dan Walsh and four medical and correctional staff members. It demands damages of $1 million.

The lawsuit alleges that jail staff failed to properly search Frazier and did not provide sufficient supervision and medical attention to her. She died Dec. 1, 2015, of an accidental overdose on diphenhydramine – a sedative found in Aleve PM she brought into the jail surreptitiously.

Frazier was one of three people to die after medical emergencies at the jail in a 193-day period, from December 1, 2015 to June 10, 2016. Inmate Paul Clifton died after having an asthma attack on Easter morning. Veronica Horstead, who suffered from congestive heart failure and was experiencing heroin withdrawal, was found unresponsive in her cell on June 10.

Jail officials and the State’s Attorney office declined comment directly about the Frazier estate lawsuit.

Frazier, who was awaiting a transfer to state prison for a three-and-a-half year sentence for retail theft, started screaming, crying out and moaning about intense abdominal pain related to heroin withdrawal at 2 a.m., according jail and court documents. She was brought to solitary confinement and was not seen by a nurse until 11:30 a.m.

According to video surveillance, Frazier placed medicine in her mouth around 3:23 p.m. and appeared to have a small seizure at 3:50 p.m. and was last seen moving at that time. A correctional officer found her unresponsive at about 5 p.m., when she was transferred to Carle Foundation Hospital and pronounced dead.

“She begged for help and begged them to send her to the ER and they chose to laugh at her and tell her to shut up because she was bothering other inmates,” said Shayla Maatuka, the attorney for the Frazier estate. “It was a completely preventable death.”

The lawsuit also includes an expert report from Lisa Feather, a legal nurse consultant with southern Illinois-based Feather and Associates, who reviewed the case and concluded that Frazier’s treatment while at the jail was, “below the standard of care,” and, “resulted in a preventable death.”

“She was a mother, she was a grandmother, she was a sister who had a twin sister, an aunt. Just a valuable person. She did not deserve this. She turned herself in and was doing the responsible thing but her life didn’t matter,” Maatuka said.

Settlements not uncommon

Other lawsuits may follow. Maatuka told CU Citizen-Access that she is representing the estate of Clifton and is in the process of drafting a demand letter that could be followed by a lawsuit.

In fact, the county often faces litigation regarding the jail. Since 2006, 15 separate settlement agreements have been reached regarding non-employee related lawsuits against the sheriff’s office, the majority of which involved the jail. The payout from settlements has totaled $395,000, according to a review of settlement documents obtained from the county through a Freedom of Information request.

Ten of the lawsuits, which alleged misconduct at the jail including failure to give appropriate medication and not taking inmates to the hospital, had payouts of $1,500 to $20,000, totaling $46,250.

“The majority of those suits you’ve seen, especially the ones that we’ve settled for little amounts are current inmates from department of corrections suing because of some treatment they think they received in the jail,” said Barbara Mann, the chief of the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office Civil Division.

She said the county never hears about these lawsuits until they’re filed and approved by a judge, who reviews the case to see if it has legal standing.

One example is a lawsuit filed by Kenneth Watson on Aug. 8, 2013. Watson, who is serving a nine-year sentence in prison for residential burglary, filed a lawsuit alleging that the jail kept him five days too long on an unrelated domestic violence charge that was eventually dismissed. He demanded $8 million but settled for $2,000.

But the most expensive settlements were wrongful death settlements:

  • The county agreed to pay $175,000 to the family of Terrell Layfield, who hanged himself in the jail in 2004.
  • The county agreed to pay $100,000 to the estate of Joseph Beavers, who hanged himself in the jail in 2004.
  • In 2009, the county agreed to pay the estate of Quentin Larry $50,000 for his 2006 death that was determined to be a heart attack caused by cocaine usage.

Since 2004, 13 inmates have died in the jail. Only four have filed wrongful death lawsuits.

The county administrator can approve settlements of up to $30,000, and payments higher than that must go to the county board for approval.

In settlement cases, the county is self-insured up to $250,000, which means they must pay settlements, lawyer fees, etc. up to that amount, and any settlement higher than that is paid for by an insurance company, Champaign County Administrator Rick Snider said.

Maatuka said that it’s common for government entities to settle cases like these.

“I have settled every case I’ve filed against any county,” Maatuka said. “Litigation is extremely expensive and it’s taxing and it takes a long time. In most settlements neither side gets exactly what they want and usually no one is happy, but it’s resolved and it’s done and it’s not dragged out any further.”

However, cases can take months, if not years, to settle.

For example, Maatuka sent a demand letter on behalf of the Frazier estate on Aug. 8 to then-Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie. After not getting a response from the county, Maatuka filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 1, the anniversary of Frazier’s death, to ensure they had the legal right to bring on certain arguments and claims.

Maatuka said settlement talks usually happen alongside the court process.

“You don’t just file and you settle. You continue with the case and in the background you discuss settlement,” Maatuka said.

Champaign County considers a number of factors before settling a case, Mann said, including looking at the overall expense of litigation and the uncertainty of the outcome if the case goes to trial.

“We have to determine how expensive is it going to be to get it to trial. It’s not only lawyer fees. It’s depositions costs, court reporters, we might have to travel. We may have to hire expert witnesses or other types of witnesses,” she said.

Mann said the more complicated the facts are, the more expensive a lawsuit is because it takes more time to get it to trial.

Additionally, there is a certain amount of risk in going to trial, she said.

“Every case has some risk on both sides,” Mann said. “No matter how much you think your actions have been within the law. There’s always a possibility a judge or jury would see it differently.”

Mann said that Champaign County is usually represented in civil rights cases by Keith Fruehling of Urbana law firm Heyl Royster. The county has not yet answered the initial complaint.

Facility issues

Multiple reports commissioned by the county have concluded that the jail is lacking in necessary medical facilities. Further, no part of the existing facility “can be made suitable for the housing of special needs inmates”, those with serious mental or medical health issues, according to a facilities report by Gorski Reifsteck that was given to the county board in January 2015.

The report also concluded that based on the design of the jail special needs inmates are “inappropriately housed” and it recommended new space be added at the jail to meet mental and medical health needs for inmates.

Reports have said the problems are not only at the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue, where Frazier passed away; it is also a problem in the downtown jail. The county operates two facilities, although there have been proposals to consolidate them.

The report claims that the areas in the downtown jail where mental health and medical health inmates are confined are “inadequate” and need to be “remedied.”

The county tried to finance improvements to the facilities as a part of a sales tax referendum earlier this year, but it failed to pass on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“I just think it’s important that our county jail makes some real changes. They need to train better, they need to respect lives and they need to learn some compassion,” Maatuka said. “Just because they’re in jail they’re still entitled to basic health care.”

Johnathan Hettinger contributed to this report.