Tulsa County officials have agreed to drop a challenge to a multimillion-dollar federal civil rights jury verdict linked to the 2011 death of a jail detainee.
The Tulsa County Commission agreed Tuesday to pay the family of Elliott Earl Williams $10 million, plus any interest that accrues until the total amount is paid, said Dan Smolen, attorney for Williams’ estate.
The agreement will end nearly eight years of litigation that included a jury’s determination in 2017 that Tulsa County and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz were liable for Williams’ death in the county jail.
“After nearly eight years of hard-fought litigation, the case is now resolved once and for all,” said Smolen, who called the settlement the largest ever in an Oklahoma civil rights death case.
“The estate agreed to this settlement, in part, to avoid additional delays, arguments and possible appeals concerning the issue of ‘setoff,’” Smolen said in a statement. “It is the estate’s hope that the settlement will provide deterrence for future civil rights violations.”
Guy Fortney, a private attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, declined to discuss the settlement, other than to say Tulsa County officials are pleased that the case is now settled.
A jury in Tulsa federal court found that Williams’ civil rights were violated by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and Glanz while Williams was detained at the jail.
The jury awarded Williams’ estate $10 million in compensatory damages from Tulsa County and $250,000 in punitive damages from Glanz, who by then was out of office. Payment of the damage awards had been on hold while the county pursued its appeal.
The agreement Tuesday comes after an appellate court in August turned away most of the county’s legal objections, including the request for a new trial. However, the appellate court did agree that the trial judge should have considered whether to factor in an out-of-court settlement payout that the jail medical provider paid the Williams estate when determining how much of the $10.25 million damage award should ultimately be paid.
Evidence in the trial showed that Williams begged for water as he spent his last days lying in his own waste on the floor of a jail cell, where he ultimately died after the jail failed to provide him with necessary medical care or transfer to an outside facility.
The 37-year-old Williams was mentally ill when he was jailed on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing an Owasso police officer, according to court records.
Williams hit his head while alone in a holding cell, injuring his neck, according to court records.
His health deteriorated over the course of his six days in the jail until jail personnel discovered him unresponsive in a medical unit cell about 11:30 a.m. Oct. 27, 2011.
A medical expert for Williams’ estate said jail staff’s failure to stabilize Williams’ neck caused a hematoma that shut down his spinal cord, which in turn caused his respiratory muscles to stop working.
Williams’ death likely could have been avoided had jail staff stabilized his neck and referred him to an appropriate medical facility, according to his estate’s medical expert.
As part of the settlement, the Williams estate has agreed to drop a punitive damage claim against Glanz, meaning he won’t be on the hook for the $250,000, Smolen said.
The settlement also calls for the county not to pay Williams’ estate attorney fees that accrued while the case was pending.
Attorneys for Williams’ estate claimed at one time that they were entitled to receive $1.5 million in legal fees since they prevailed in the lawsuit.
Smolen said Williams’ story should “never be forgotten.”
“The suffering that Mr. Williams endured, and the inhumane treatment he encountered at the Tulsa County jail, simply cannot be tolerated in a civilized society,” Smolen said.
“The comprehensive opinion and order entered earlier this year by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is a landmark, and will be cited in civil rights cases for years to come. This will be Elliott’s legacy.”
Tulsa County officials could not be reached regarding the impact of the settlement on property taxes, which can be affected by large court judgments.
In the past, the Tulsa County Employees Retirement System has assumed judgments on behalf of the county, officials said.
Under such a scenario, the county retirement plan would pay the entire judgment to the plaintiff with the understanding that the county would reimburse the plan with money from its sinking fund over a three-year period, plus interest.
Otherwise, the county would have three years to pay the settlement, Smolen said.