The parents of a 23-year-old mental health patient who died at Bridgewater State Hospital five years ago will receive $3 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that prison guards were responsible for their son’s death, according to Benjamin R. Novotny, an attorney for the parents.
The settlement, disclosed Tuesday, follows a February Boston Globe report detailing the death of Joshua K. Messier as he lay strapped to a bed while seven prison guards stood by. A subsequent investigation by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration led him to place three of the guards on paid administrative leave and formally reprimand two top correction officials while asking for the resignation of a third.
“While nothing can bring back Joshua Messier to his family, we believe this will be a fair resolution to a sad case,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who represented the Department of Correction and eight of the nine guards who were defendants in the case.
The $3 million will be paid by the state and the insurer for MHM Correctional Services, the Virginia-based company that provides medical and mental health care to inmates and patients at Bridgewater. The state’s share was not disclosed, but Novotny said it “will greatly exceed” a $100,000 cap that usually applies to judgments against the state due to the actions of state workers.
Kevin Messier, Joshua’s father, said he was pleased.
“It is heartening to see the attorney general’s office exhibit leadership coupled with compassion in recognizing this wrong and bringing some measure of accountability for these troubling actions,” he said in a prepared statement.
Lisa Brown, Joshua Messier’s mother, said she would comment at a later date.
Messier, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was killed after an altercation with a correction officer as guards secured him spread-eagled in four-point restraints on a small bed. In a scene captured on prison video, two of the guards pressed down hard on Messier’s back while he was seated on the bed with his hands cuffed behind him, folding his chest toward his knees, a maneuver sometimes called “suitcasing.” The action is forbidden by regulations because of the risk of suffocation.
Bridgewater State Hospital is a medium-security prison that provides mental health services to convicted criminals and mental health patients who have been charged with crimes.
Novotny, an attorney with the firm Lubin & Meyer, said Coakley was the driving force behind the settlement. After Patrick disciplined the guards and department supervisors earlier this month, eight of the nine guards retained their own attorneys. The increasing legal complexity of the case, Novotny said, threatened to delay resolution of the parents’ lawsuit, which was filed two years ago.
“The attorney general stepped in and said, ‘Rather than delay justice for the family, let’s take a run at getting it settled now,’ ” Novotny said Tuesday. “It would have been two years or more before we could get a trial with new counsel coming in.”
Novotny said the amount of the settlement is “fair because it does away with the risk of the state denying payment and the risk inherent in any jury trial.” He also said the settlement puts this piece of Messier’s story behind his parents, “without more litigation, depositions, and being subjected to hours and hours of questions.”
The settlement is not expected to affect Patrick’s continuing investigation or the possibility that Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz will consider reopening a criminal investigation into Messier’s death.
Coakley has suggested that Cruz could reexamine the case.
“As a former district attorney, I know that DAs are constantly reviewing death investigations as fresh information becomes available,” she said in a statement to the Globe last week. “I have confidence that District Attorney Cruz will continue to evaluate this case if new, relevant information becomes available and take appropriate action based on the facts and the law.”
State medical examiner Mindy J. Hull initially ruled that Messier’s 2009 death was a homicide, saying he died of a heart attack as he was “restrained by correction officers during agitated state.”
Hull also found that Messier sustained injuries consistent with a beating, including internal bleeding on his brain and blunt force injuries to his neck, torso, arms, and legs. An autopsy photograph reviewed by the Globe shows a deep gouge to the crown of his head.
Cruz closed the investigation in 2010, concluding there was insufficient evidence of a crime. He did not present evidence to a grand jury after a private conversation among Hull, an assistant district attorney, and State Police investigators, during which Hull pulled back from her official findings.
In a statement to the Globe last year, Cruz’s office said Hull could not identify a specific moment in the video when the guards caused Messier’s death and concluded he was responsible for his own demise.
“In her opinion, it was the conduct of Joshua Messier in fighting and maintaining the struggle against the guards that caused his extremely agitated state, and ultimately his death,” according to a two-page statement from the Plymouth district attorney’s office.
Three years after Cruz declined to prosecute, the Department of Correction’s Special Operations Division concluded the video evidence showed two guards violated the prohibition on suitcasing. The division also concluded that all seven of the guards in Messier’s cell the night he died violated an additional provision that requires them to be alert to breathing difficulties or loss of consciousness in a restrained inmate.
Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer never acted on the findings, adding to Patrick’s decision to reprimand him.
“The death of Joshua Messier was a horrible tragedy. No settlement can fill that void,” Patrick said in a statement released Tuesday evening. “Meanwhile, there are lessons here to be learned about how better to treat people with mental illness in DOC care.”