Few would consider $2.44 million and $440,000 in attorney fees in a prisoner’s rights case as a bad haul for a newcomer to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Following her first appearance there last year, Christine Stetson, an associate in Beaumont’s Bernsen Law Firm, won a favorable ruling, bolstering the odds that her clients, family members of a detainee who died in an Orange County, Texas, jail, would win a final judgment of that size. In January her victory led to the Orange County Commissioners Court deciding to pay a $3.175 million judgment against the county in favor of her clients.
Her clients, whom Stetson, along with David and Cade Bernsen, represented at trial and on appeal, filed wrongful death and deliberate indifference claims against Orange County after their relative Robert Montano died of renal failure in jail following days spent in a cell without running water or a toilet.
At trial, the Bernsens and Stetson detailed how the jailers didn’t take Montano to a physician when he cried out in pain and even put paper sheets on the observation windows of his cell so they wouldn’t have to look at him crawling on the floor in his own waste. Hearing that evidence, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $1.5 million for pain damages, $917,000 for wrongful death damages and $440,000 in attorney fees.
But then in a final judgment, a trial court judge shaved off $917,000 of that after granting Orange County’s post-verdict motion opposing the wrongful death findings.
A November 2016 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit, written by Judge Rhesa Barksdale, who was joined by Judges E. Grady Jolly and Leslie Southwick, determined that the jury had been right about the wrongful death allegations. Specifically, Barksdale noted the county’s lawyer at closing had conceded that Montano had been medically neglected—since that argument deflected from the deliberate indifference claims.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s award, except it vacated the part of the decision that reversed the jury’s wrongful-death damages. The appeals court also remanded the matter to the trial court for a revised judgment consistent with its opinion. For her part, Stetson, who began her legal career as an associate at Dallas’ Bickel & Brewer, and also worked at Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox, and Gardere & Wynne, was heartened by the appeals court, not known for being pro-criminal defendant, issued its ruling.
“The Fifth Circuit, although very conservative, is not going to desert a jury verdict when it is so clear that the medical services provided at the Orange County jail were so vastly unconstitutional that death was inevitable,” she told the Texas Lawyer at the time.
Other plaintiffs counsel should also take heart because the appeals court accepted as evidence of the county’s unconstitutional customs and practices the testimony of county officials, rather than simply accepting the guidelines they claimed to follow on paper, or insisting upon specific examples of where those practices had led to other civil rights claims, Stetson said.