County seeks chunk of plaintiff's wrongful death verdict after settlement offer rejected

By Record News | Jan 1, 2019

BENTON – St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson claims a wrongful death trial over the suicide of Bradley Scarpi in jail produced a verdict so small that Scarpi’s estate owes the county $111,513.66 for taking the case to trial. 

On Dec. 21, Watson moved to recover all fees and costs that the county incurred after Scarpi’s brother Dwayne White rejected an $850,000 settlement offer. 

County counsel Thomas Ysursa wrote, “Defendants’ costs include the reasonable costs it incurred, due to having to try this case.” 

The motion would give the county 37 percent of a $301,000 verdict that jurors rendered for White on Dec. 7.

It placed Senior District Judge Phil Gilbert between extremes, because White had moved a day earlier to recover $947,612.66 in fees and costs from the county. 

His lawyers at MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago reported that they spent 2,362 hours on the case, and local counsel LaToya Berry spent 234.5 hours.

“This sort of recovery on behalf of the heirs of a detained individual is an outlier, well exceeding what prisoners generally are able to recover from state actors if they are able to recover at all,” they wrote. 

Deputies detained Scarpi, age 33, on April 14, 2014. 

On May 23, 2014, deputy Christopher Lanzante found him hanging from his cell bars, alive but unconscious. 

Scarpi died at a hospital 37 minutes later. 

White sued the county, Watson, and 13 employees in 2016. 

His lawyers wrote that defendants failed to place Scarpi in a suicide proof cell, obtain mental health services, or check on him regularly. 

They wrote that Scarpi told Lanzante he would kill himself and Lanzante told him he could do what he wanted. 

They wrote that another detainee told Lanzante that Scarpi would kill himself, and Lanzante responded that then Scarpi would be dead. 

Gilbert quickly dismissed most defendants, and as trial approached he granted summary judgment to others. 

White dismissed three more, setting up trial for Lanzante and Watson only. 

Jurors laid all blame on Lanzante, finding no unconstitutional policies or practices in Watson’s department. 

They awarded Scarpi’s children $150,000 for wrongful death, and they awarded the estate $150,000 in compensatory damages for failure to protect. 

They awarded $1,000 in punitive damages. 

Although jurors didn’t hold Watson liable, the parties had agreed that a wrongful death verdict would apply to him in his official capacity. 

They had also agreed that the county would indemnify any damage award against Lanzante or Watson in his official capacity. 

White then petitioned to recover $868,475 in fees and $79,037.56 in costs. 

“This litigation enforced the constitutional rights of a man who died because a government employee violated those rights,” attorney Vanessa del Valle wrote. 

“It is difficult to imagine a public interest greater than preventing senseless deaths that occur because of the unreasonable behavior of state actors. 

“Cases brought to redress deprivations of constitutional rights are a highly specialized area of federal practice.” 

She wrote that lawyers must go to great lengths to discover what happened in an opaque environment where defense witnesses control evidence. 

She wrote that the county’s $850,000 settlement offer included legal fees and costs and that if White had accepted the offer, he would be responsible for paying legal fees and costs.  

As of Nov. 9, when White rejected the offer, he had accrued $576,000 in fees and costs. 

Del Valle wrote that if he had accepted the offer the estate would have recovered $274,000, less than the jury awarded. 

When Ysursa filed Watson’s motion for fees and costs, he added a footnote stating he would respond to White’s motion. 

He listed $96,102 in fees, $10,606.56 in costs, and $4,805.10 for transcripts.

 

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