Attorney: Settlement to pay for health care, guardian for man crippled in OPP _lowres

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman

On the eve of trial, Sheriff Marlin Gusman this week settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of a former Marine who suffered a life-altering brain injury three years ago at Orleans Parish Prison — a jailhouse attack that typified the kind of violence that prompted a federal judge to order sweeping reforms at the lockup.

The settlement was announced in U.S. District Court filings Monday, the day the lawsuit had been set for trial.

It will pay for the medical care of former inmate Terry Smith, 69, for the rest of his life, said Miranda Tait, an attorney with the Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that helps the elderly and disabled.

Because the assault rendered Smith “completely unable to care for himself,” Tait said, the settlement includes a provision in which the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office also will pay for a guardian “to ensure that Mr. Smith receives the care and attention he needs for the rest of his life.”

She said the money will be paid in monthly increments.

“For the Advocacy Center, this case was about obtaining some measure of justice for a man with a serious mental illness and with no friends or family to assist him,” Tait said. Without the help of the Advocacy Center and Stephen Haedicke, a local civil rights attorney, she added, “Mr. Smith would have been forgotten, alone and completely disabled in a state-run nursing home.”

The monetary value of the settlement remained unclear Tuesday. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

While many OPP inmates have suffered similar attacks while awaiting trial, Smith’s case stood out for several reasons, not the least of which was the severity of his injuries.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk referred to Smith’s neglect behind bars in approving the so-called consent decree that Gusman signed with inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department. The attack, the judge noted, highlighted the dangers of inadequate staffing at the jail, among other shortcomings. Some of the most serious assaults at OPP have occurred in the absence of deputies.

Smith, who had been an oil-field worker earlier in life but had became something of a drifter, had a minor criminal history that his attorneys said was consistent with homelessness and self-medication. He suffered from schizophrenia for years, the symptoms of which prevented him from holding down a job.

In 2012, Smith was jailed for “obstructing a public way” during Mardi Gras and housed in the psychiatric tier of the now-shuttered House of Detention, a jail building that was notoriously violent. According to his attorneys, Smith was attacked, receiving broken bones in his face.

He was released from custody in June but arrested again days later for trespassing and possessing a glass pipe. Deputies again placed Smith among a group of mentally ill inmates, this time in a jail building called Templeman V. According to Smith’s lawsuit, he was not segregated from violent inmates.

On June 23, 2012, Smith was walking around a tier referred to as A-3 asking for coffee when he encountered Edwin K. Lee, a mentally ill and notoriously violent inmate whom Africk described as having “a penchant for administering blows to the head and face and for preying upon older inmates.”

Lee, 23, frequently managed to pop the lock on his cell and, just a week before Smith’s attack, was said to have knocked two front teeth out of another inmate in an a similarly unprovoked assault. In October 2011, he was accused of striking at least two deputies with a broomstick, fracturing one of their jaws.

Despite this history, Smith’s attorneys said, the Sheriff’s Office failed to protect inmates from Lee’s frequent and increasingly violent outbursts.

Lee struck Smith several times in the face, knocking him to the floor. As he collapsed, Smith struck his head on a metal bench and lay in a pool of blood until he was discovered by a deputy conducting a routine security check.

The blows caused Smith’s brain to hemorrhage, rendering him nearly brain-dead. According to Smith’s lawsuit, he began suffering seizures and was unable to walk or communicate after the attack.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.