Arpaio Loses Again
Jury gives $9 million to estate of inmate
Restraint chair blamed in death
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 25, 2006 12:00 AM
A federal court jury on Friday awarded $9 million to the estate and the parents of a man who died in 2001 after being strapped into a restraint chair at a Maricopa County jail.Charles Agster III died in August 2001 as county detention officers struggled to subdue him. But lawyers in the civil suit debated whether he suffocated in the chair or died from a reaction to methamphetamine.
It was the second time in a decade that the county and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office have had to pay millions of dollars as the result of a lawsuit over the fatal use of the device, which is intended to restrain out-of-control jail inmates and keep them from harming themselves. "We hope this judgment makes it so that it won't happen to other parents in the future," Agster's mother, Carol, said.Her attorney, Michael Manning, hoped that the verdict would "shout from the roof" about "this culture that the sheriff has created in that jail.""This is not a Third World country," Manning said. "This shouldn't happen in a place like Phoenix, Arizona."
In January 1999, Manning reached an $8.25 million court settlement with the county in the 1996 death of Scott Norberg, who also died while being buckled into a restraint chair.Manning is also representing four other wrongful death suits involving county jail prisoners, two of them also related to the restraint chair.
Agster, 33, was mentally retarded. On Aug. 6, 2001, according to court pleadings, he was acting in a paranoid fashion after taking methamphetamine. His parents decided to take him to the hospital, but on the way, Agster asked to stop at a Circle K for a smoke and cup of coffee. When he refused to let go of a coffee stand there, the store managers called police, who took Agster to Madison Street Jail.
"He was in custody for 15 minutes," sheriff's spokesman Jack McIntyre said.When Agster continued to act erratically, detention officers strapped him into a restraint chair to subdue him. And when he stopped breathing, according to the lawsuit, jail personnel did not immediately administer CPR. Agster died three days later.An initial autopsy report said that Agster died of positional asphyxia, effectively that he had suffocated while being held down by detention officers. A later autopsy report said the cause of death was excited delirium consistent with methamphetamine abuse.
Dan Jantsch, one of the attorneys representing the county, said he still believes that the drugs caused Agster's death, not the restraint chair.The chair, he said, is used on only 2 percent of prisoners coming into the jails even if more than 50 percent are out of control.Manning's lawsuit named the Sheriff's Office, the county Department of Correctional Health Services, several detention officers and the nurse who recommended that Agster be strapped into the chair, charging them with violating state and federal statutes.
The trial began Jan. 31 before District Court Judge James Teilborg; the jury deliberated for a week before coming back with a verdict that totaled $10 million. The responsibility apportioned to Agster, his parents and the person who sold him the drugs, reduced the county's liability by $1 million. Each of the detention officers is responsible for a token $1; the nurse, Betty Lewis, for more than $2 million.Manning will also ask that the court award him $3 million in attorney's fees, also to be paid by the county.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio issued a statement after the verdict. "From the day this incident occurred, I have always said Mr. Agster's death was unfortunate, but my officers did not cause this man to die," Arpaio said. "In the end, the jury found many parties responsible for Agster's death. While they awarded about $4 million against this office, the jury found that Agster himself, his parents and Agster's drug supplier were responsible for his death as well."
Brian Kaven, the attorney for the Sheriff's Office, said the office would likely appeal the verdict.
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