Lawsuit over suspect’s death while in Maui police custody moves forward

Published: Jul 29, 2010
By Minna Sugimoto - KFVE
Original Article

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – A civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of a terroristic threatening suspect who died while in police custody on Maui is moving forward. A federal judge ruled Wednesday night that there’s sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys are pleased, saying they’ve now cleared a major legal hurdle. Lawyers for Maui County and the officers being sued say they’re also pleased because many aspects of the suit were thrown out.

In September 2008, Dennis Wereb was arrested for allegedly flashing a knife at children while riding the bus. He died inside his cell at the Lahaina police station.

Video from the holding facility shows he hadn’t moved for 27 hours before police personnel discovered his body.

“People treat their dogs better than that,” Ken Shimozono, plaintiffs’ attorney, said. “If you didn’t see your dog moving for 27 hours, obviously you’d go over and see if something was wrong. It’s very upsetting.”

Wereb’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Maui County, as well as several officers and civilian employees, claiming the 47-year-old exhibited signs of distress and died from complications from alcohol withdrawal, but that police failed to monitor him properly and obtain medical help.

“He obviously was very close with his parents and they are devastated by this,” Shimozono said. “It seems like a very needless thing that happened. It shouldn’t have happened.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright ruled there’s enough evidence to move to a jury trial. In his 57-page decision, he wrote “the fact that Wereb lay motionless for approximately twenty-seven hours before he was found dead supports the conclusion that detainees were not monitored with a level of care required to notice even the most basic of medical needs.”

Lawyers for the defendants say Wereb died from a liver condition, and that not even his two cell mates reported anything wrong.

“There were no telltale signs when he was taken into custody or immediately prior to his death that he was in any type of medical need,” Moana Lutey, Maui County deputy corporation counsel, said. “If there had been any type of indication that he did need medical attention, that would have been provided to him immediately.”

The judge did dismiss several defendants, who had less contact with the suspect, from the suit.

“This started off with 10 county employees being sued and they’re down to three,” Lutey said. “So I think that says a lot about their case.”

The jury trial has been set for September.

Budge & Heipt is a law firm committed to obtaining justice for victims and their families who have suffered wrongful death or catastrophic injury due to police brutality and police misconduct in jail or prison. For cases such as drug or alcohol withdrawal deaths in jail, Budge & Heipt can help. Please contact our office for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.