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Inmate’s Brother Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Awarded $5 Million

— March 22, 2019

Brother of inmate who died after being repeatedly punched while restrained received $5 million.

Steven Neuroth, 55, of Ukiah died after his June 11, 2014 arrest when he was being held in Mendocino County jail.  The man was held face down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed and ankles shackled, by law enforcement officers in a sobering cell while a medical staff member stood idly by.  His brother, James Neuroth, 57, filed a wrongful death lawsuit and is set to receive $5 million in an agreement that requires two law enforcement agencies provide new training procedures for handling people in crisis.

Before Neuroth’s death, the arresting officer, Kevin Leef, from the Willits Police Department is shown in a jail video obtained during the proceedings joking about his condition.  The inmate, according to his attorney, was experiencing a schizophrenic psychiatric crisis.  Leef laughs about his fear of snakes with a vocational nurse.

“Walk up there and say ‘Ah, snakes!’  Funniest thing you’ve ever seen,” said Officer Leef, now a sergeant.

Inmate's Brother Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Awarded $5 Million
Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

The vocational nurse, Jennifer Caudillo, responses, “Should’ve let him get hit by a car.”

Later in the same footage, Neuroth briefly resists being put into a cell, so he is restrained, fights back, and the staff members punch him while he calls for help.  After several minutes, he goes limp.  He is taken to the hospital, where he is pronounced dead.

The official Mendocino County coroner report stated Neuroth died from “methamphetamine toxicity associated with violent struggle” and noted that “any contributory role of restraint asphyxia (was) unascertainable.”

His brother sued the county, the Willits Police Department and California Forensic Medical Group, and in the filing, James Neuroth alleges the man died from “compression asphyxia when deputies restrained him, putting pressure onto his back and ignoring his pleas for help,” according to attorney Michael Haddad.  He added, “Sometimes people have to be restrained in the jail, but the reason why the Sheriff’s Department is going to train all of their employees about compression asphyxia is because that manner of restraint killed Steven.”

The jail ended its contract with California Forensic Medical Group afterwards, but the company continues to provide medical services in jails throughout the state of California.  The facility now has a contract with Alabama-based NaphCare, according to Sheriff Tom Allman.  According to staff, NaphCare has more registered nurses on its staff who have a higher level of training than most of the staff from the California Forensic Medical Group, so it is a better fit moving forward.

As part of the settlement’s terms, law enforcement officers will receive crisis intervention training. Willits police are also deploying body-worn cameras and requiring officers use them.   Jail staff are also spending more time appraising arrestees to evaluate mental health conditions and determine “whether or not we’re going to accept the inmate from the arresting agency,” according to Sheriff Tom Allman.  He added, “This death was very unfortunate.  Given the level of illegal substance found in his blood certainly one could assume that was a contribution to this unfortunate situation.”

In the wrongful death lawsuit, Mendocino County and its insurer have agreed to pay $3 million.  California Forensic Medical Group will pay $1.5 million and the city of Willits will pay $500,000.


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