Jury awards Williams family $10 million in jail death case

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Attorney Dan Smolen, center, speaks with the media after Monday’s verdict in the Elliott Williams case. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

After seeing a video of Elliott Williams languishing on the ground paralyzed in Tulsa’s jail more than 10 times and hearing almost a month of testimony, jurors decided Monday the Sheriff’s Office was deliberately indifferent to his civil rights.

Jurors awarded the family of Elliott Williams $10.2 million after about 10 hours of deliberating over two days.

The verdict is the second time in a row in about a year that a jury has found the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office liable for violating the civil rights of a prisoner in the jail. Both cases featured the same attorneys defending and suing the county.

The jurors — four men and four women — levied a $10 million verdict against Tulsa County and a $250,000 punishment against former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz in his individual capacity. The verdict was announced at about 3:30 p.m. Monday.

When jurors started deliberating Friday, they had listened to more than 20 witnesses over about a month’s time.

Williams’ family gathered on benches outside of the courtroom that afternoon, waiting. Their wait lasted through the weekend, and in the heat of Monday afternoon, they finally got the answer they were waiting on. 

As the verdict was read, some jurors closed their eyes and others nodded their heads. Kevin Williams, Williams’ older brother who testified in the trial, began audibly crying.

Dan Smolen, representing Williams’ estate, said Williams’ family members were pleased with the jury’s ruling.

“I think (the jury) came to the conclusion that any jury in this case would come to,” Smolen said. “That Elliott Williams needed justice, that his family needed justice, and they have that today.”

Smolen said there have been several preventable deaths in Tulsa County’s jail, but none that were videotaped.

Dan Smolen says Tulsa County needs to change lawsuit strategy from Watch Frontier on Vimeo.

Kevin Williams said he was satisfied with the jury’s decision, but no amount of money would bring his brother back. He said he believes someone should be criminally charged for his brother’s death.

“So, I’m not satisfied fully, but I’m content with the decision,” he said.

Glanz and Regalado refused to comment to reporters after the verdict was read. Regalado, who the jury found liable in his official capacity said he would at a later date.

Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado leaves the federal courthouse Monday after a jury found him officially liable in a civil rights case. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Defense attorney Clark Brewster was in another trial following the verdict and was not immediately available for comment.

Attorneys for Williams’ estate had asked for $51 million — $1 million for every hour the military veteran suffered without food and water in the jail. They also asked for punitive damages against Glanz for any amount the jury saw fit.

The judgment will be paid through Tulsa County’s “sinking fund” over a three-year period. The sinking fund is funded through property taxes.

The first year payment on a $10 million judgment would be $3,917,647.87, Steve Blue, chief deputy at the Treasurer’s Office, said. The millage necessary to produce that tax amount would be .693 mills. On a $100,000 home, using the same assumptions as above, the tax amount resulting from .693 mills is $7.62.

For a Tulsa County resident who owns a home valued at $100,000, that person will likely see a first-year property tax increase of $7.62.

Williams, 37, died from complications of a broken neck and showed signs of dehydration, a medical examiner’s report states. He was arrested by Owasso police after suffering a mental breakdown because he believed his wife planned to leave him.

Elliott Williams soon before he died. Photo Courtesy NewsOn6

Glanz and current Sheriff Vic Regalado were the defendants in the lawsuit by Williams’ estate, alleging his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights were violated. The jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., settled with Williams’ estate and was no longer a defendant when the case went to trial.

To prevail, Williams’ estate needed to show more than an isolated failure involving one inmate. Attorneys for the estate had to prove the Sheriff’s Office was deliberately indifferent to Williams’ constitutional rights and that they were on notice of issues at the jail that were a direct cause of the deprivation of his rights.

During an emotional closing argument Friday,  Smolen told the jury Williams was deprived of food, water and the comfort of his family.

“He lied in the same spot begging for help,” Smolen said. “No one would help him. … Not just his life, but those last five days of his life, those comforts that we grow to love and appreciate every day: family, communication, basic necessities, using the bathroom, having a drinking of water, having a meal.”

The video shows Williams trying to reach food and water before dying on the floor. The video showed that Williams’ legs never moved and he had limited movement in his arms due to the paralysis.

Jurors watched as medical staff in the video tried to resuscitate Williams after he died. Jurors heard testimony during the trial that medical and detention staff had a practice of pretending to revive inmates they knew were dead so that death would be pronounced at the hospital.

During closing arguments, Smolen showed jurors a slow-motion video in which jail staff appear to look up at the camera in Williams’ cell after he died.

Smolen also showed the jury a video of Williams walking through the booking area of Tulsa’s jail on Oct. 22, 2011, and into a holding cell. He wouldn’t walk back out. Instead, he would be rolled out on a gurney only hours later and taken to the medical unit.

“When Mr. Williams walks off camera he literally walks into a living nightmare,” Smolen said.

Smolen was critical of defense attorneys’ argument that Williams caused his own injuries. It’s unknown exactly how he became paralyzed.

An Owasso police officer slammed Williams to the floor by his head and neck in the jail’s booking area. Another inmate said he believed Williams rammed his head into his cell door.

Brewster reiterated the argument Friday.

“How did we cause an injury? How did we cause this man to run into a door?” Brewster asked the jury during closing arguments.

Smolen told the jury the case wasn’t about how Williams became paralyzed, but what happened after jail staff knew he was injured.

Former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz leaves after hearing the verdict in the Elliott Williams trial. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Williams was crying out for help, telling detention staff he couldn’t move because his neck was broken, Smolen said.

Smolen reminded the jury Capt. Tommy Fike and Sgt. Doug Hinshaw left Williams in a shower for just under two hours. A Sheriff’s Office internal investigation into Williams’ death states they dumped Williams off several feet into the shower, causing his head to hit the concrete floor.

“They just lifted the gurney and dumped him off inside the shower,” Smolen told jurors.

“(Williams) told them he couldn’t stand. He begged them for help. ‘Quit faking,’ they kept telling him. ‘Get your nasty ass off the gurney.’ They didn’t care at all. That is deliberate indifference.”

Witnesses testified Fike and Hinshaw were cursing at Williams. Neither were disciplined for the incident.

During his testimony, Hinshaw denied dumping Williams into the shower.

Jail and medical staff couldn’t have been indifferent to Williams’ serious medical needs because nobody knew he was actually injured, Brewster said in closing arguments.

The jail’s health care was provided by a private contractor with its own employees. Jail staff depended on their medical expertise and didn’t know Williams was paralyzed, Brewster said. Medical and jail staff thought Williams was faking his injuries. 

Williams’ constitutional rights weren’t violated, but his case was one of medical negligence, Brewster said. He told jurors that providing medical care for the 1,700 inmates in Tulsa’s jail is challenging.

“You’ve got — and I’m not trying to in any way denigrate the population in any way, but you have drug-addicted people, you’ve got psychopaths, you’ve got sociopaths, you’ve got real security concerns, you have people that have just chronic illnesses,” Brewster said.

When he entered the jail’s custody, Williams was seen within two hours by nurses, Brewster said. He was admitted into the medical unit and eventually seen by a psychiatrist.

Brewster reminded jurors jail administration sought out reviews, consultants and audits as an effort to improve the facility’s health care and gain national accreditation.

“The thing that you have to use your common sense about is, if you didn’t care, why is there such a careful scrutiny of every action?” Brewster asked jurors.

“Why is there national associations coming in and auditing? Put it in the contract, (Glanz) insisted on it. Why do we put him in a surveilled cell? Why do we take careful notes? Why do we do, with even a hint of somebody being mistreated, a full investigation?”

The jail had policies and procedures in place to ensure proper medical care, he said.

Another attorney for Williams’ estate, Don Smolen, told jurors they had the opportunity to leave a legacy for Williams with their verdict. An award of $5 million to $10 million wouldn’t make a lasting impact on the Sheriff’s Office, he said.

“It will be business as usual. Detention staff and medical staff will continue to be indifferent to inmates,” Don Smolen said. “They will continue to be desensitized to their basic human needs and they will teach their culture of indifference to all new people who step through their doors.

“People will continue to die preventable deaths. Administration, like we’ve seen throughout this trial, will continue to pass the buck down the line and continue to paper over issues with policies that sound good in theory, but are never implemented.”

More cases on the horizon

The verdict marks the second loss in a row for the county in a civil rights lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s Office. In March 2016, a jury found the Sheriff’s Office was deliberately indifferent to the civil rights of a woman who had been held in the jail as a juvenile and sexually assaulted by a detention officer.

Following the trial in U.S. District Court, jurors found Glanz and the sheriff’s office were “deliberately indifferent” to the risk of serious harm to the plaintiff in that case, awarding $25,000.

The Smolen, Smolen & Roytman law firm also filed that lawsuit and will recoup their legal fees and costs, which after six years were expected to run in the high six figures.

Several other civil rights lawsuits filed by the firm against the Sheriff’s Office are expected to go to trial this year, unless they are settled by the county.

The first of the pending cases scheduled for trial was filed on behalf of a mentally disabled woman who alleges she was raped in the jail’s medical unit by another inmate. The woman had gone to the medical unit seeking treatment and was placed in a holding cell.

The woman was left shackled in the holding cell and jail staff neglected to lock the door. When detention staff left to respond to an emergency in another part of the jail, the woman was raped by a male inmate, according to the lawsuit.

Jessie Earl Johnson, the male inmate accused of raping the woman, had been labeled an “extreme escape risk” by TCSO but was given trustee status in the jail.

TCSO has denied responsibility in the case and pointed to the fact that the woman recanted her story after charges were filed. However, in an order denying TCSO’s motion for summary judgment, Dowdell notes that the defendants’ own expert believes the mentally disabled woman was raped.

“Her recantation occurred in the course of an interview by TCSO deputies, without her counsel present, after this litigation had been filed,” the order states.

Elliott Williams trial coverage

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Contact: Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044.
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