Multimillion-dollar settlements OK’d in psychiatric hospital, prison lawsuits
Members of the Judiciary Committee approved two multimillion-dollar settlements Monday — one dealing with the prevalence of hepatitis C among those in the state’s prisons and jails and one involving the abuse of a patient at Whiting Forensic Hospital.
Lawmakers are required to vote on any settlement greater than $2.5 million. The rest of the legislature can vote on both settlements, but if they don’t do so before the end of the session, both are automatically approved. Three-fifths of each chamber would have to reject the settlements in order for them to be tossed.
The first settlement involved the physical and mental abuse of William Shehadi Jr., a patient at Whiting Forensic Hospital found not guilty by reason of insanity, by state employees. Video captured via surveillance cameras in Shehadi’s room substantiated many of the allegations made by a whistleblower in March 2017, resulting in a dozen people being fired and some serving prison time, Peggy Chapple, the deputy attorney general, told lawmakers Monday.
Shehadi continues to suffer post-traumatic stress and emotional distress from the abuse, Chapple said, the extent of which is difficult to quantify because, “How much of his mental health issues are the result of the abuse, versus underlying mental health conditions?”
Legislators on the Judiciary Committee approved a $9 million settlement for the Shehadi family.
“We believe that the settlement is a fair and just settlement for the state despite the fact that we recognize it’s a large amount of money, but given the egregious nature of the allegations in this case, and some of the sustained findings in the case, we feel that it’s a fair settlement,” Chapple said.
Chapple did not field questions from lawmakers for long, but Republicans did note the amount.
“Nine million dollars is a lot of money for a settlement,” said Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan.
“I’m confident that this is the absolute best figure that we could have achieved in settlement, and I think the risk of exposure to the state for a greater number if it’s tried to a jury is one that we don’t want to take,” said Linsley Barbato, deputy associate attorney general.
Others questioned the scope of the abuse. Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said he recalled reading media reports that 50 state employees were arrested, disciplined or fired in the aftermath of the abuse.
“That sounds like a systemic issue that envelops an entire facility,” Dubitsky said. “Is it possible that they were all committing acts against this one guy, and that there aren’t other people and we don’t have other claims potentially out there?”
Chapple said there were a dozen people who were determined to be abusing Shehadi, but there could have been others who knew what was going on but didn’t report it. She noted that all 12 former employees were arrested.
“So 12 employees were arrested for abuse of this one person and none of those 12 employees were implicated in abuse of any other patient at Whiting? Just this one guy?” Dubitsky asked.
Barbato said the Attorney General’s Office was not aware of any other instances of abuse.
Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would address systemic issues raised by the CVH Whiting Task Force, which was formed in the aftermath of the patient abuse scandal. Legislators indicated a hope that, taken together, the bill and the settlement would result in significant changes that ensure no other patients suffer like Shehadi.
Shehadi’s abuse resulted in two lawsuits: one directed at the state, the other against 12 of the forensic nurses and treatment specialists who the suit charges carried out the abuse. Chapple said that per the terms of the settlement, the state will no longer be on the hook for other potential settlements or the costs of lawyers’ fees for the former state employees named in the civil suits.
“So that will effectively put an end to all litigation involving Mr. Shehadi,” said Chapple.
“That’s a huge window of potential liability that is also extinguished by acceptance of this settlement,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said before voting yes on the Senate resolution. “We are not looking at a proud moment in Connecticut at all, and the best we can draw from this is that we learn from it as to how to care for those who lack mental capacity to face justice.”
The other settlement involved screening and treating people in the state’s prisons and jails for hepatitis C. Lawmakers approved a settlement in the lawsuit last session, but a federal judge threw out the agreement because it was too broad and could have prevented prisoners from suing the state for any reason whatsoever.
The Department of Correction announced in 2019 that it would begin testing and treating incarcerated people for hepatitis C, a cost that Commissioner Angel Quiros later estimated at $18.7 million annually.
“The agreement basically calls for continued treatment and testing for hepatitis C for all inmates existing or who enter DOC facilities, to the extent that they agree to such testing and treatment,” Chapple said, indicating there are additional reporting requirements on the number of incarcerated people who have been tested and who have tested positive. Those reporting requirements would expire in August of this year.
The lawyers for the incarcerated people represented in the class-action lawsuit would get $112,500. Ken Krayeske, one of those lawyers, said that to date 918 incarcerated people have been cured of hepatitis C. He also said lawmakers should bind the DOC by statute to the terms of the settlement so that they continue to test and treat the incarcerated population for the infection and not simply back out once the settlement expires in August.
“The legislature should force them to do this. This is a simple measure,” Krayeske said. “That we even had to force a class-action lawsuit and go to battle over this for the past four years demonstrates the lack of compassion that society in general has for people who are incarcerated.”
During the committee meeting, Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, plugged a bill he co-sponsored this session that would require the DOC to provide “necessary and appropriate” medical and mental health care for the incarcerated population. Doing so could cut down the number of lawsuits the state faces because of substandard prison medical care, lawsuits that are ultimately footed by taxpayers.
“I think that if we spend the money up front, we will probably not have to spend it later,” Anwar said. “Sometimes we don’t have to pay after if we do the standard of care initially.”