Washington Post Reports on $7.25 Million Indiana Jail Death Settlement by Budge & Heipt

The Washington Post has reported on a $7.25 million settlement achieved by the law firm of Budge & Heipt for the death of Joshua McLemore following his confinement in a small Indiana county jail. The settlement is believed to be the largest settlement for a jail death in Indiana history.

From the Washington Post, December 12, 2023:

Family settles for $7.25M after man’s ‘disgusting’ death in jail, lawyer says

‘It is sad beyond belief and truly disgusting what happened to Josh,’ the family’s lawyer said

Josh McLemore with his mother, Rhonda. (Courtesy of Ed Budge)

By the time Josh McLemore was pulled from his jail cell in Brownstown, Ind., in August 2021, he had been locked in solitary confinement for 20 days, suffered an acute mental health crisis and lost 22 percent of his body weight, according to a lawsuit his family later filed.

On Aug. 8 of that year, EMTs took him to a hospital for treatment, but it was too late.

McLemore, 29, died at a hospital in Cincinnati after spending nearly three weeks in solitary confinement at the Jackson County Jail, according to the lawsuit. The doctor who performed McLemore’s autopsy would list his cause of death as “multiple organ failure due to refusal to eat or drink with altered mental status due to untreated schizophrenia.”

More than two years later, Lemore’s family has settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against Jackson County officials for $7.25 million, their lawyers announced last week. In a 47-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Indiana, McLemore’s relatives had accused county officials of causing his “avoidable death,” alleging that, for weeks, no one came to McLemore’s aid after locking him in a cell and watching him starve to death as his mental health crisis deteriorated further, all while naked and covered in his own feces and urine.

“It is sad beyond belief and truly disgusting what happened to Josh, almost beyond words that this would happen in an American jail,” the family’s lawyer Ed Budge told The Washington Post.

Lawyers representing Jackson County officials — including Sheriff Rick Meyer, whose office runs the jail — did not respond Monday to requests for comment from The Post. Lawyers representing Advanced Correctional Healthcare, the company that the county contracts to provide health care services in the jail, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Jackson County Council President Brian Thompson told WAVE that after McLemore’s death, the sheriff’s office made changes to the way it processes inmates suspected of going through mental health crises.

“The Sheriff’s Department has added a mental health nurse to the jail staff to identify those subjects struggling with a serious mental health condition as quickly as possible so that they may receive appropriate care,” Thompson told the station.

On July 20, 2021, McLemore’s mother grew worried because he hadn’t returned her calls or text messages, the lawsuit states. His apartment manager found him on the floor of his bedroom, naked, confused and incoherent, and he was taken by ambulance to the Schneck Medical Center emergency room in Seymour, Ind., according to the suit. During an initial assessment, a nurse noted that he was rambling, didn’t comprehend what was happening and had an impaired memory, the suit states. She allegedly described his mood as “hostile, suspicious, anxious and apprehensive.”

About a half-hour after arriving, McLemore pulled a nurse’s hair when she asked him to stop lying on the floor and get back into bed, according to the suit. Although he eventually obeyed, police were summoned and McLemore was arrested on a charge of battery against a public safety official; officers handcuffed and shackled McLemore so they could take him to the Jackson County Jail, some 10 miles away, the suit states.

Guards allegedly put McLemore, who weighed about 198 pounds when he arrived, in a small, windowless padded isolation cell, where he remained naked, alone and “in a constant state of psychosis” for nearly all of the next 20 days.

Jail surveillance video shows McLemore staring into space and exhibiting erratic behaviors, the suit states. An investigation by the Indiana State Police later determined that, because of his mental state, McLemore slept as little as 15 hours total during his confinement, it alleges.

Jail staff, including Sheriff Meyer, knew about McLemore’s condition, but he was never seen by a doctor or a mental health professional, the suit states. He was given no access to medication to treat what was clearly a mental health crisis, Budge said. Because of his deteriorating mental health, McLemore ate and drank little, causing him to lose nearly 45 pounds during his incarceration, according to the suit.

On Aug. 8, after nearly three weeks, an officer decided McLemore needed medical attention and called for an ambulance, which arrived around 6 p.m., according to the suit. EMTs allegedly took him to Schneck Medical Center, where he had been arrested 20 days earlier. Doctors determined he needed more help than they could provide, and McLemore was airlifted to Mercy Health-West Hospital in Cincinnati.

At the hospital, McLemore slipped into a coma, the suit states. His mother, Rhonda, flew up from Mississippi and, after consulting with doctors, decided to take him off life support, according to the suit. McLemore died around 5 p.m. on Aug. 10.

The death was the second that summer at the Jackson County Jail. Four days before McLemore was arrested, Ta’Neasha Chappell died after begging jail staff to help her, the Louisville Courier Journal reported. Over the course of about 16 hours, she had repeatedly vomited blood and asked several times to go to the hospital, all the while becoming more and more dehydrated.

In both cases, the Indiana State Police investigated the deaths, though prosecutors declined to file charges in connection with them. Although he declined to charge any individual officials in the case, Jackson County Prosecutor Jeffrey Chalfant determined that “Mr. McLemore most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention by Jackson County Jail staff as a group.”

Rhonda McLemore died in December 2022, and Josh McLemore’s aunt Melita Ladnertook over as administrator of his estate, Budge said. In September, they agreed to settle with Jackson County officials. Last month, Josh McLemore’s estate received payment, and the case was dismissed.

“The size of the settlement reflects the egregiousness of the jail’s mistreatment of Josh,” Budge said in a statement. “The video we obtained shows a young man in severe mental and physical distress, with no ability to care for himself, being ignored by the people responsible for his safety and wellbeing. The video reveals a level of indifference and inhumanity that should never be tolerated in a modern jail.”

On Tuesday, Budge told The Post that both he and McLemore’s aunt hope the settlement serves as “a wake-up call” not just to Jackson County officials, but to all others in charge of the thousands of jails across the country. That’s what Rhonda McLemore wanted when she decided to sue after her son died.

“No person should be made to suffer as he did,” Budge said, “and a hope is that other families will be spared from similar pain.”

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