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Sullivan County settles jail lawsuit, faces unusual number of wrongful death cases

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Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street said that 2020 ended with a big win for the county: the settlement of a hefty class-action federal lawsuit that had been filed against it over violent and overcrowded conditions in its jail.

In October 2019, Travis Bellew, a former jail inmate, filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Sullivan County, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell, a former corrections officer named Christopher Sabo and some other unnamed Sheriff’s Office employees.

The suit claimed that when Bellew was an inmate at the county jail in 2018, Sabo violently assaulted him for no reason. (Sabo pleaded guilty to the assault charge.) It also alleged that the assault stemmed from a “violent culture created by decrepit jail conditions — including severe overcrowding and understaffing,” according to the complaint.

Bellew sought $3 million in damages for himself, along with damages for everyone who’d been incarcerated in the jail since 2014. But Street said that on Dec. 8, 2020, he reached an agreement with Bellew and his lawyers: The county would pay Bellew $175,000 in damages, and the class-action charges would be dropped.

Street said he was “very, very, very pleased” that he’d been able to reach an agreement with Bellew and his lawyers outside of court.

“I don’t mean to mitigate Mr. Bellew’s individual claim, but because they sought to [make it a class-action case], if Mr. Bellew was successful in his suit, then the damages would multiply, and it could end up being quite costly,” Street said. “The exposure there for the county was what really concerned me a lot.”

While Street said Bellew’s team deserved credit for working with the county to reach the agreement, he also thought the county’s actions over the past year had made a difference.

The Sheriff’s Office launched a new pretrial release program — which is now barely a year old — designed to keep more defendants charged with low-level crimes out of jail while they were awaiting trial, Street said. And in September, the Sullivan County Commission agreed to use an $80 million, 20-year bond to fund an expansion and renovations of the jail.

“The main part of their suit ... was due to the overcrowding situation at the jail and the problems at the jail,” Street said. “You could see that we were making improvements. I think that helped, definitely.”

Meanwhile, the attorney said, over the course of 2020, the county faced six wrongful death cases — a record number.

“We don’t see a lot of those. … I don’t think I’ve had four or five or six, not very many, in 26 years [of serving as the county attorney], and all of a sudden I’ve got six at one time,” Street said.

He listed them. One concerned a man who was allegedly shot and killed by law enforcement officers after shooting at them. Two focused on the treatment of county jail inmates who both appeared to have died by suicide. Another took issue with how county EMS workers treated a man who died after being sedated for an oral surgery. And there was a county employee whose car strayed over a traffic lane line in Blountville, colliding head-on with another car and killing the woman in it.

Street said the sixth case, which was about an EMS stretcher that had collapsed under a man who later died, hadn’t actually been filed as a lawsuit. But he said he was including it in his mental list, since he’d heard from some lawyers who were interested in helping a plaintiff sue the county over it.

Street said he was hesitant to comment on the financial risks those cases pose to the county because wrongful death suits are extremely sensitive. But he reiterated that facing so many of those cases at once is “really kind of odd” for the county.

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