Lawyer: $1.9 million settlement in Sandra Bland lawsuit
CHICAGO (AP) — The mother of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died last summer in a Texas jail after a contentious traffic stop, has reached a $1.9 million settlement in her wrongful-death lawsuit, her attorney said Thursday.
Local officials in Texas insisted the agreement was not yet final, but the mother’s attorney said the deal was “absolute” and that the family’s lawsuit would be dismissed in several days.
Bland, who was from the Chicago area, died in her cell days after she was pulled over by a white Texas state trooper for a minor traffic offense. Her death was ruled a suicide, and Bland’s family later sued Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The settlement includes a requirement that the jail have a nurse or emergency medical technician on duty 24 hours a day, the family’s Chicago-based attorney, Cannon Lambert, told The Associated Press in an interview at his office.
The jail must also install electronic sensors to ensure guards are checking on detainees, and the defendants agree to help push for statewide legislation in Bland’s name that would require training to ensure jail personnel are properly caring for inmates, Lambert said.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said those requirements beyond the monetary settlement are what really mattered to her, and she vowed to make sure they are carried out.
“Today is a victory for all mothers across the country,” she told the AP. “It was never just about Sandy. It was about all mothers who have lost their children unjustly to police brutality, to senseless gun violence.”
Waller County attorney Larry Simmons confirmed that a potential settlement had been reached but said it was not final. He also said the parties agreed in writing to keep the agreement confidential until it was complete, and the county intended “to honor this commitment.”
Simmons said lawyers on both sides were “still working through a few details” and that any settlement must be approved by county commissioners. The county “vigorously” denies any fault or wrongdoing in Bland’s death, he said, “and the settlement does not involve any such admissions.”
The agreement would cost the county “a modest $1,000 deductible” under its liability insurance, he said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, also named as a defendant, released a statement saying it “has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland and is not a party to any agreements between the plaintiffs and Waller County defendants.”
Jeff Rensberger, a professor at the Houston College of Law, said the settlement showed that both the county and its insurance carrier wanted to “get this behind them.”
“The cost of the settlement is good risk to them as compared to the risk what a jury might do in this case,” he said.
The other provisions attached to the agreement, while unusual, are “not rare or unheard of,” particularly in a wrongful-death lawsuit against a government agency, Rensberger said.
“Part of the motivation for bringing wrongful-death suits in cases like this is for reform purposes as well as compensation,” he said. “So this goes to that reform purpose.”
It was unclear how much those extra requirements would cost to implement, but Lambert said the reforms would certainly benefit local authorities, too.
Bland, 28, was pulled over by a state trooper in Prairie View, northwest of Houston, for changing lanes without signaling. The stop grew confrontational, and the trooper, Brian Encinia, ordered her from the car before forcing her to the ground. She was taken into custody on a charge of assaulting a public servant but could not immediately come up with the $500 bail, according to investigators.
Video from the July 10, 2015, traffic stop shows Encinia drawing his stun gun and telling Bland, “I will light you up!” She can later be heard screaming off-camera that the trooper was about to break her wrists and complaining that he knocked her head into the ground. The video provoked national outrage and drew the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Encinia was later fired and charged with a misdemeanor perjury charge stemming from the arrest. He has pleaded not guilty.
In an affidavit, Encinia said he removed Bland “from her vehicle to further conduct a safer traffic investigation,” but prosecutors said Waller County grand jurors found that statement to be false.
Bland, who attended Prairie View A&M University just outside Hempstead, was in the process of moving to Texas from the Chicago area to take a job at the school. Three days after her arrest, she was found hanging from a jail cell partition. A medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, and a grand jury declined to charge any sheriff’s officials or jailers.
In their lawsuit, Bland’s family contended jailers should have checked on her more frequently and that the county should have performed mental evaluations once she disclosed she had a history of attempting suicide.
The family’s complaint also contended that the trooper who arrested Bland falsified the assault allegation to take her into custody and that jail personnel failed to keep her safe. County officials said Bland was treated well while locked up and produced documents that showed she gave jail workers inconsistent information about whether she was suicidal.
Graczyk reported from Houston.