Oak Harbor jail hanging likely headed back to court

A split opinion by the Washington State Supreme Court likely means another trial in a lawsuit over the 1995 death of Edward Gregoire, a 23-year-old man who hanged himself in the Oak Harbor Jail after being arrested on a misdemeanor traffic warrant.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace said he was shocked and disappointed by the 5-4 decision, which reversed a Court of Appeals opinion. The lawsuit names Wallace and several current and former members of the department, as well as the city, as defendants.

“From what I was told, the Supreme Court made new law instead of interpreting old law,” he said.

But Mary Ruth Mann, the Seattle attorney representing Gregoire’s wife and daughter in the wrongful death lawsuit, said the opinion was based on long-established law and state administrative code that requires jailers to take certain commonsense precautions to prevent suicides, which she said the defendants failed to do in this case.

“When you take away a person’s liberties, you have a special duty to care for them,” she said.

Five years ago, a jury in Island County Superior Court found that Oak Harbor police officers were negligent in the case, but that their actions were not the proximate cause of Gregoire’s death. As a result, the city wasn’t on the hook for the $7.24 million in damages that Mann had asked the jury to award.

The high court’s opinion, however, finds that Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock erred in reading jury instructions that may have inappropriately prompted the jurors to conclude that Gregoire was culpable for his own death.

The majority of the justices agreed with Mann’s arguments. The justices found that jailers have a special relationship with inmates and a special duty to care for inmates that makes jury instructions regarding “assumption of risk” and “contributory negligence” improper.

Hancock said he “respectfully disagreed” with the majority opinion and points to the dissenting opinion.

“My instructions to the jury were fully consistent with established law as it existed at that time,” he said. “The court decided to change the law and I must fully accept that.”

The justices remanded the case for a new trial consistent with this opinion, but Mann hopes the case can be settled out of court. She said it’s been a long, difficult fight for Gregoire’s 17-year-old daughter, Brianna.

“This is a girl who lost her father and had to testify once already,” she said. “I hope they don’t make her go through that again.”

The city’s insurer, the Association of Washington Cities, is handling the litigation on the city’s behalf.

In December of 1995, a state trooper arrested Gregoire, an Oak Harbor High School graduate, on outstanding misdemeanor warrants. In the patrol car, Gregoire alternated between violent outbursts and despondency. At the Oak Harbor jail, he broke free and ran from troopers, then pleaded with them to shoot him after he was caught.

A group of troopers, jailers and police officers restrained Gregoire and brought him into the jail. They did not administer any mental or physical health screening before leaving him alone in a cell. About 10 minutes after a jailer saw him crying, an officer found him hanging from a bed sheet strung from the cell’s ventilation grate.

Several law enforcement officers responded to the alarm, but didn’t administer CPR “even though it had been 5 or 10 minutes since Gregoire was last seen alive in the cell,” the Supreme Court opinion notes.

Wallace, who was there that night, said the officers felt that Gregoire was already dead and it was too late. But paramedics arrived and started CPR after detecting warmth in his body. After 15 to 20 minutes of CPR, the paramedics noticed a faint pulse, but Gregoire was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

The following year, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop conducted a public inquest and cleared the police of any wrongdoing.

But lawsuits ensued. In 1998, Gregoire’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The complaint alleged that the department did not have a program for mental health screening for potential suicides and, therefore, failed to screen Gregoire or put him on suicide watch; and that police denied Gregoire emergency medical care after he was found hanged.

In addition, the complaint alleged that Gregoire may not have killed himself, but that the police negligently or intentionally caused his death and covered it up. It alleged racism played a part in Gregoire’s death. He was an African-American man.

A federal judge dismissed the case in 2001, but the wrongful death case in Superior Court continued.

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