Ford County settles jail-death lawsuit

Ford County settles jail-death lawsuit

URBANA — A multimillion-dollar settlement has been reached in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought in 2013 against Ford County, its sheriff and two county jail employees for failing to provide proper medical treatment to an inmate who later was found dead in his cell.

The exact amount of the settlement was not disclosed by the defendants' attorney, Keith Fruehling of Champaign, in a filing that resolved the case in U.S. District Court in Urbana.

However, the amount was "substantial" and was in the "multimillion-dollar" range, according to Janine Hoft of the Chicago-based People's Law Office, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Richard J. Gonzalez's estate.

Hoft said the money will be split between Mr. Gonzalez's three minor children, who will start receiving payments through annuities once they reach age 18.

Both Sheriff Mark Doran and Fruehling did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The seven-count lawsuit was filed on May 23, 2013, naming Ford County, Doran and two unnamed jail employees as defendants.

The lawsuit alleged that correctional officers "failed and/or refused" to provide Mr. Gonzalez, a 30-year-old Hoopeston resident, with proper medical treatment for "serious medical needs" and instead locked him in a solitary padded cell. The lawsuit further alleged that jail staff conspired to cover up the circumstances surrounding his death.

"We believe that if adequate medical care had been provided to Mr. Gonzalez, he would still be with us today," Hoft said. "No amount of money and no amount of time can really give the family the relief that they desired, which was for this not to have happened and for their son and brother and father not to be taken away from them at an early age."

The lawsuit said Mr. Gonzalez was taken into custody at the Ford County Jail on May 15, 2012, and was awaiting transfer to the Illinois Department of Corrections when he was found dead about 4 a.m. May 23. He had been sentenced to four years in prison for stealing $3,000 from a Paxton bank through a fraudulent ATM transaction.

On May 18, 2012, Mr. Gonzalez suffered a "serious medical need," the lawsuit said, and county employees took him to a nearby emergency room for treatment. Later that day, they returned him to the jail.

The lawsuit said Mr. Gonzalez "continued to experience serious medical needs" after being brought back to the jail — including pain and being provided ineffective prescription medication — but jail staff refused or failed to provide him with treatment, instead locking him in a solitary padded cell.

Doug Wallace, who was the county's coroner at the time, said Mr. Gonzalez's death was caused by cardiac arrhythmia, adding that a contributing factor was a fracture of his right scapula due to a fall. Wallace ruled the death an accident.

Wallace said the injury to Mr. Gonzalez's shoulder area — which contributed to his death — occurred May 18, 2012, when Mr. Gonzalez fell off a table while talking on a phone in a six-person cell block. Wallace said the shoulder fracture put additional stress on Mr. Gonzalez's heart, contributing to the cardiac arrhythmia.

The suit alleged that Doran and his staff conspired to cover up the circumstances of Mr. Gonzalez's death by writing false reports and lying to state police investigators, claiming Mr. Gonzalez was alive long after he had died.

"He had been dead for a number of hours," Hoft said, "but by state law, the jailers are to observe (inmates) every 30 minutes, at minimum. Mr. Gonzalez was under a special observation because of his serious medical condition, and the jailers said they continued to observe him every 30 minutes, even though the scientific evidence had shown that he had been deceased for hours."

Special prosecutor Ed Parkinson was asked by state police to prosecute those responsible for the alleged cover-up on charges of official misconduct, Hoft said, although he declined to file any charges.

While pleased with the settlement, Hoft said she continues to fight for justice on behalf of Mr. Gonzalez and his family.

"We have, in the last year, provided (Parkinson) with all of the information that was uncovered in the civil rights litigation, and we do hope that they revisit that decision," Hoft said.

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.

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