Death in custody to cost Multnomah County record sum

From The Oregonian, June 26 2009

Multnomah County is poised to pay its largest legal settlement, $925,000, to end its part in the federal civil rights lawsuit brought two and a half years ago by the family of James P. Chasse Jr.

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler said the settlement, which commissioners will vote on Thursday, followed substantial negotiations.

The county and Chasse’s family, Wheeler said, agree that the county needs to move beyond the legal issues and focus on improving mental health care.

“Second, we live in a litigious society, and you never know what’s going to happen,” Wheeler said Friday. “Our attorneys have advised us this agreement is in the best interests of the taxpayers.”

Portland attorney Tom Steenson said Chasse’s family would have no comment until after the commission’s vote.

Wheeler scheduled the vote as the county discusses pressing forward with a 16-bed mental health crisis treatment center in Portland. The Portland Development Commission has set aside $2 million to redevelop the David P. Hooper Center as the county’s new mental health triage center. The city and county have pledged to split the $3 million operating costs.

“I want the community to understand that as we pay out a settlement from the James Chasse case,” Wheeler said, “the county learns from its mistakes and makes good on its commitment to the public to strengthen its delivery of mental health care.”

Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, was chased by officers who said he appeared to be urinating in the Pearl District on Sept. 17, 2006. The officers knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him. He suffered broken ribs, some of which punctured his left lung, early in his encounter with the Portland officers and a sheriff’s deputy. Ambulance paramedics who responded said Chasse’s vital signs were normal, and police drove him to the Multnomah County Detention Center.

He appeared to suffer a seizure in a holding cell and lost consciousness. A jail nurse looked through the cell door window and told police the jail would not book Chasse. Portland police placed him in a patrol car, where he died on the way to a hospital. The cause of death: broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest.

The settlement would remove from the lawsuit the county and its employees, including then-sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, who was involved in the initial struggle with Chasse, and jail nurses, who are accused of failing to examine or treat Chasse or call an ambulance.

The city of Portland and American Medical Response Inc. remain defendants in what legal observers say has become a complex, extremely expensive suit to defend.

Settlement negotiations began in February under the guidance of Magistrate Thomas M. Coffin, records show.

Once a settlement conference was scheduled in February 2009, there was little activity until U.S. District Judge Garr M. King ruled June 3 on each party’s motions to dismiss the case, largely saying there was enough issue of fact to proceed to trial.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they settled it right after the judge’s ruling,” said Jeffrey Batchelor, a civil litigation lawyer who spends 90 percent of his time mediating lawsuits. “In civil cases, the defendant, having lost that, loses the bargaining chip.”

Mediators also often urge parties to consider economics, he said. “To do a case of this complexity right, the county and the city are going to have to spend a lot of money,” Batchelor said.

The county hired medical experts and two private lawyers to assist. The trial, set for March 16, 2010, has been tentatively scheduled to last 12 days.

Parties weigh the likelihood they could lose and the cost of going to trial. If the Chasse family won in the county case, then the county would have to cover the family’s attorneys fees.

“The advantage obviously to the county is that it’s done. It’s not going to face any further liability,” Batchelor said.

And the county cuts off liability from other defendants, meaning other parties to the case can’t sue the county.

The settlement could pressure the city of Portland to settle as well. It also could allow the city to shift blame to the absent party at trial, the county jail nursing staff, for the lack of medical care provided to Chasse.

Deputy City Attorney James Rice declined to comment.

County Attorney Agnes Sowle also declined to comment, saying only that the settlement is the county’s largest. The next largest, she said, was a $200,000 payment in 2004 to the parents of a jail inmate who died after medical staff gave him an overdose of methadone instead of his prescribed painkiller.

Jason Renaud, a friend of Chasse’s and a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, praised Wheeler for recognizing the importance of a crisis treatment center, what he called the “key missing ingredient in the continuum of mental health care.”

Wheeler said he’s hesitant to estimate when the center will open, but county records suggest 2011.

Wheeled pointed to reforms already made: mandatory crisis intervention training for law enforcement; guidelines that require police to share with paramedics and jail nurses the amount of force used during an arrest; new policies that restrict when officers can place a sick or injured person in a patrol car and that require jail staff to assess an inmate’s condition and determine whether an ambulance should be called; changes in Portland’s use of force policy; and restrictions on foot chases.

“If there’s any silver lining to this tragedy,” Wheeler said, “it’s that there has already been demonstrable change in how law enforcement works with others in the mental health community.”