Gregg County Jail death lawsuit settled
Jan. 16, 2013 at 10 p.m.
Terms of a settlement that headed off a federal court trial over the death of a woman who died in the Gregg County Jail remained unknown Wednesday.
Attorneys for the county and the family of Amy Lynn Cowling struck the deal late Tuesday during their third attempt at mediation. The settlement cancels a jury trial that had been scheduled to begin Tuesday in U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap's courtroom in Marshall.
Cowling's mother and three children sued Gregg County in June 2011, six months after Cowling died in the county lockup where, court records indicate, her drug-dependent condition deteriorated without her prescription medications.
Cowling's mother, Vicki Bankhead, and Cowling's children took the county to federal court, where they would not face the $200,000 damages cap they would have had in a state court.
Questions about the terms of the settlement were referred to Gregg County's insurance carrier, the Texas Association of Counties. The association did not immediately respond to a request for information.
Gregg County exhausted its $25,000 deductible in the summer. Any money paid in the settlement would come from the insurer, though local taxpayers would foot the bill if the association increases premiums in its next contract.
Though terms of the settlement were not available, its scope might be hinted in Bankhead attorney Todd Tefteller's description of why the lawsuit was settled on the third mediation attempt.
"It took two carriers being involved, one on top of the other, to get this done," he said. "It pretty well exhausted one carrier's coverage to get it settled."
While no official will link them with the death, there have been staff and policy changes at the jail since it occurred.
Those include hiring a nurse practitioner who sees inmates Mondays and Fridays. When Cowling, 33, was brought to the jail Dec. 24, 2010, the one weekly visit by County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne was five days away.
She died the night before Browne's scheduled Wednesday visit.
"That poor lady never lived to see the jailhouse doctor," Tefteller said.
An initial autopsy ruled her probable cause of death was seizure caused by withdrawal from methadone and prescription drugs. A second autopsy labeled it as suspicious and recommended keeping the investigation open. The investigation was closed after the second autopsy.
Along with adding the nurse practitioner position, Sheriff Maxey Cerliano boosted to 10 from eight the number of jail medical personnel who are either licensed vocational nurses or paramedics. Those new slots came on line in October 2011.
"We actually spent in excess of $1 million a year for inmate medical services," Cerliano said Wednesday. "We work diligently with the court and the district attorney when an inmate has a medical issue. We try to expedite them through the judicial system. ... (Browne) and I are in communication. We talk about inmates with medical issues."
The sheriff in 2011 also equipped the north jail and courthouse jail with an electrocardiogram and a station capable of recording multiple vital signs such as blood pressure and oxygen levels.
It remains unclear, however, whether Browne has altered the jail policy on prescription drugs. In addition to methadone that Cowling had been taking for 10 years to stave off an opiate addiction, she was taking Seroquel and Xanax for anxiety and a bipolar diagnosis. None of those drugs is on Browne's list of approved jailhouse medications.
Browne did not return a phone message Wednesday seeking the status of the prescription policy, but he issued the following statement through attorney Robert Davis:
"As we have done on a case by case basis, the jail medical staff has detoxified people with Methadone. People are detoxified from Xanax with Librium, which is the proper protocol for detoxification from other benzodiazepines. For other illegal narcotics and some prescription narcotics, people in the jail are detoxified with clonidine, again a well recognized and standard protocol."
Cerliano also fired or reassigned five jailers in the wake of Cowling's death. Two of them were arrested after officials said they falsified records indicating when Cowling had last been observed in her cell.
Gregg County was the only defendant in the suit. No individual office holders were sued.
County Judge Bill Stoudt declined comment other than to issue the following statement as the county's chief administrator:
"After two years, thousands of pages of documents, numerous depositions and three federal court-ordered mediations, Gregg County insurance carriers and legal counsel agreed to settlement. It was the consensus of our insurance carrier and legal counsel that settlement would be the right decision for Gregg County and the Cowling family versus going through a lengthy and very costly trial and assured appeals by either the plaintiff or defendant. It was felt that bringing this unfortunate death case to settlement was in the best interest of Ms. Cowling's three children and her mother. The agreement holds Gregg County harmless from all claims of any kind in the past and the future."
Bankhead was not available for comment, Tefteller said. Cowling's children were represented by attorney Jimmy Negem.