Local officials will meet in a settlement conference next month after being sued by the family of a man who died of an overdose while in police custody in 2017.
The conference, slated for Dec. 12, is part of a case brought to federal court in March after the family of Tavaris McGuire filed a lawsuit against a bevy of Kokomo and Howard County officials that claims law enforcement officers neglected him during a deadly overdose.
McGuire, 21, died on Feb. 4, 2017, inside the St. Vincent Kokomo emergency room after an overdose in the Howard County Jail. His death followed a traffic stop arrest and charges related to methamphetamine.
His mother, Constance McGuire, on behalf of “the estate of Tavaris McGuire,” filed a lawsuit in February claiming he “died because the Defendants failed to obtain proper medical assistance while he was in ... custody.”
The lawsuit is now in the Southern District of Indiana federal court.
Listed as defendants in the suit are Kokomo Police Chief Rob Baker; officers Aaron Tarrh, Jeramie Dodd and Richie Sears; Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight; former Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers; current Sheriff Jerry Asher; the Howard County Board of Commissioners; and “John Does members” of the sheriff’s department and Howard County Jail.
The parties will get together in December in an attempt to come to terms to end the case.
“In federal court, they generally hold an early settlement conference and the federal magistrate ordinarily will conduct the conference, and all the parties are expected to be there,” said Howard County attorney Alan Wilson.
“And the magistrate will just attempt to mediate and see if a settlement can be reached or not.”
Howard County, which is represented in the case by an attorney with its insurance carrier, has taken the position it is not liable for McGuire’s death despite his overdose taking place at the jail.
“The county’s position has been that there is no liability since McGuire was not in the county’s custody and had never been booked into the jail,” said Wilson.
The city, whose insurance company hired outside counsel, declined to speak on the pending litigation but has denied the lawsuit’s allegations in court filings, saying there was “no deliberate indifference to McGuire’s medical needs and no negligence.”
The outside attorney did not return a request for comment.
Even if no settlement is reached in December, the parties could settle at a later date. Otherwise, they will continue to move toward trial, similar to the depositions and other information-gathering already underway in the case.
A final pretrial conference has been scheduled for Nov. 10, 2020, followed by a jury trial slated to begin on Dec. 7, 2020, in an Indianapolis courtroom.
“There’s always a chance the magistrate at some later point will say, ‘OK, we’re going to take another shot at this,’ and try to get the case resolved,” said Wilson.
“And the federal judges can be very persuasive in trying to persuade the parties to settle. And they will do what they can to try to reach an agreement and broker a settlement rather than trying a case. It’s more efficient.”
Caroline Briggs, the attorney representing McGuire’s family in the lawsuit, has said their side is “always open to a settlement.”
“That’s the ultimate goal. But if trial is necessary, then trial is necessary,” she said after the lawsuit was transferred from Howard Superior Court 2 to federal court this spring.
On Friday, Briggs gave a loose prediction the case will go to trial.
“At this time, my guess is it will proceed to trial, but I don’t know. You never know until a settlement conference is done,” remarked Briggs, who said an expert physician she hired is increasingly confident law enforcement is liable for McGuire’s death.
“He feels that [McGuire’s] life could have been saved if he had been taken to the hospital,” she said before referring to the same debate referenced by Wilson.
“Well, the city had technical custody of him, but he was physically at the jail. So there is a dispute between the county and the city as to who had the obligation to get him care.”
A synopsis offered by the Howard County defendants notes that jail staff “told the KPD officers once McGuire started having issues they were not going to take him into the custody of the jail until McGuire was seen by medical personnel.”
What happened?Information provided by the Kokomo Police Department noted that McGuire was taken into custody with two other people following a traffic stop near the intersection of Mulberry and Leeds streets.
He was arrested on charges of possession of methamphetamine and dealing methamphetamine.
The lawsuit notes that the traffic stop took place at roughly 11:55 p.m. Feb. 3, 2017, after which McGuire was taken to the Howard County Jail for booking.
At the jail, while officers completed their field arrest reports, McGuire placed his personal belongings in jail totes, according to the report.
“As we were getting ready to leave I observed that Tavaris had started twitching and was moving his arms, legs, and hands very quickly,” wrote Tarrh.
“It appeared to me that the behavior of Tavaris changed very quickly as he had been very quiet and calm up to the point that he started twitching.” Tarrh had also described McGuire during the traffic stop as “so nervous that his hands were shaking.”
In the jail, McGuire began to exhibit erratic behavior, including clutching his chest, according to police.
“Officer Dodd then called for medics and they responded to the jail,” said Tarrh. “We placed Tavaris on the stretcher and secured him to it. The medics then transported him to St. Vincent [Kokomo].”
McGuire died at the hospital at 1:54 a.m., according to information provided by the coroner’s office.
Howard County Coroner Steven Seele reiterated Friday that McGuire ingested methamphetamine during the traffic stop. In 2017, he ruled it an “accidental” overdose.
“The method was intentional, but the outcome was accidental,” said Seele.
Briggs has declined to comment on the complete timeline of events but this spring questioned how long it took for medical help to be sought.
“It was a while. It’s our belief it shouldn’t have lingered like that, and that they had signs that he was overdosing and they knew he had this drug issue,” she told the Tribune.
“I think there is a question of whether it is the city’s responsibility or the sheriff’s responsibility, and I think there is going to be an area there of questioning: ‘Who had the ultimate responsibility, or did they have joint responsibility?’ ”
The lawsuit notes that at the time of the autopsy that methamphetamine also was found in McGuire’s pocket. “The Defendants failed in their duty to remove methamphetamine from his possession,” it reads.
“Kokomo is a city with a high incidence of methamphetamine abuse,” the lawsuit continues. “Neither the Kokomo City Police Department nor the Howard County Sheriff’s Department maintained adequate medical facilities to address instances of overdose.
“The Howard County Jail did not maintain or possess hospital facilities or other medical facilities sufficient with which to adequately treat Tavaris’ overdose.”
It goes on to say the defendants in the case “did not adequately train their employees in the treatment of overdoses even though drug usage is high in the area” while also claiming they “did not treat Tavaris for his overdose until it was too late to save his life” and “failed to monitor Tavaris when he was overdosing.”