Defendants in jail lawsuit file motions for dismissal

Posted: March 13, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Several defendants named in a negligence lawsuit against the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center are seeking to be dismissed from the case.

According to court documents filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, four of seven employees named in the suit and the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center and Northwestern Regional Jail Authority filed two motions for dismissal.

Suzanne Boren — wife of Rockie Harold Watts — filed the lawsuit Feb. 15 in the same court.

She alleges in the 21-page, four-count suit that jail officials were negligent in providing medical help for Watts, who suffered from near-fatal seizures in their care, and violated his civil rights under the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.

According to the lawsuit, at the time of Watts’s arrest for a public intoxication charge — on May 5, 2011 — he was fully independent, able to manage his affairs and able to care for himself in all respects.

“Watts is now completely dependent upon others for all of his activities of daily living, and is unable to eat, stand, walk or toilet himself, among other deficits, and he now requires 24-hour care for the rest of his life,” the suit states.

He allegedly suffered several witnessed seizures at the jail during a two-hour period before officials called for emergency services.

Boren is seeking $37.2 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages from the defendants.

In each of the motions for dismissal, the defendants say Boren failed to state a legal claim upon which relief can be granted.

Attorneys for the jail state in one of the motions that the defendant’s claim should be dismissed because the facility is not a legally recognized entity subject to suit.

The Northwestern Regional Jail Authority and four officers — Louis Dusing,Tammy Bickert, James Coffelt and Jason W. Clark — say they are entitled to sovereign immunity, which “shields an entity’s agents from liability for simple negligence where the act complained of is discretionary rather than ministerial.”

Sovereign immunity, according to its legal definition, is the absolute immunity of a sovereign government — and or its entities — from lawsuits.

The four officers’ motion also indicates that they relied on the medical advice of the nurses working at the time when responding to Watts’s seizures.

“Whatever may have occurred at those times — the complaint does not specify — it is reasonable to infer that the officer defendants relied on the judgment of the nurses, who have far more medical training than line officers,” their motion states.

And though the officers state in their motion that Boren fails to allege facts supporting willful or wanton negligence or malicious conduct, they ask the court to strike her punitive damages claim, or at least to cap it at $350,000.

“Regardless, in Virginia, a court may not award more than $350,000 in punitive damages, total, against all defendants in any action,” the document states.

The other motion also asks the court to strike the punitive damages claim and/or reduce the amount for the same reason.

All defendants who filed motions — through their attorneys — outline in detail other cases and laws that pertain to their claims.

Rosalie Pemberton Fessier, of Timberlake Smith Thomas & Moses PC in Staunton, is representing the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center and Northwestern Regional Jail Authority.

Alexander Francuzenko, of Cook Kitts & Francuzenko PLLC in Fairfax, is representing the four officers.

Defendants Bruce R. Conover — former jail superintendent — and three nurses from the jail have not filed responses to the lawsuit.

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com