County pays $120,000 to settle jail death suit

By Darrell Todd Maurina

Curry County’s insurance carrier paid $120,000 to settle a lawsuit with the family of a woman who died in the county jail last year, insurance officials said on Wednesday.
The attorney for the estate of Joyce Acy said settlements have also been reached with other parties in the lawsuit, but he was barred from disclosing financial details.
Other defendants in the lawsuit include Plains Regional Medical Center, the city of Clovis, law officers and medical staff members.
Acy died of cocaine intoxication while in law officers’ custody in May 2002.
Michael Garrett, who represented Acy’s estate in the lawsuit, said the total amount received by his clients was significantly more than the portion paid by Curry County.
“It sounds like it is a small amount for a life, and it would be, but that was just one amount among many,” Garrett said.
Garrett said the Acy case is closed with no pending actions that could lead to more legal action or more financial payments.
“My clients are happy that this has been settled,” Garrett said.
City Manager Ray Mondragon and interim hospital administrator Wes White said they could not disclose the settlement amounts and referred inquiries to their attorneys in Albuquerque.
Those attorneys could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The federal lawsuit was dismissed in February when all parties agreed to a confidential settlement.
The Clovis News Journal has repeatedly asked for terms of the settlement, citing the state’s open records laws. The newspaper’s request were denied until the county’s settlement terms were released on Wednesday.
Steve Copelman, risk manager with the New Mexico Association of Counties, said the February settlement of $120,000 was a “full and final release of all claims by the estate” against the county in the death of Joyce Acy.
Curry County Commission Chairman Tim Ashley said the settlement should not lead to higher bills for taxpayers. Ashley said the settlement was paid out of insurance money rather than county general funds and the county’s insurance rates are not likely to increase because of the settlement.
Police said Acy swallowed crack cocaine when she was arrested on drug charges on May 14, 2002. While Acy was initially taken to Plains Regional Medical Center so her stomach could be pumped, medical staff there failed to dislodge all the “rocks” of crack cocaine in her system, some of which had been swallowed and some partially inhaled, autopsy reports show.
Acy’s relatives subsequently filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of her estate and her two minor children alleging that law officers and medical personnel were negligent in returning her to the jail rather than seeking further medical treatment when it was requested by Acy and other inmates.
The county commission chairman agreed with Acy’s attorney on at least one point: Both are happy to see the litigation end.
“Most definitely,” said Ashley, when asked whether he was glad the case is over.
However, Ashley said he is not pleased the county’s insurance company had to pay.
“It’s a little disappointing in my opinion,” Ashley said. “I guess it has to do with the society we live in that people do harm to themselves and hold other people responsible.”